Greendale Album Review - The Guardian, 8/15/2003

Neil Young News

15 August 2003
The Guardian

To cut a short story long - Neil Young's 'musical novel' is half epic
and half radio play gone mad, says Dorian Lynskey

Neil Young Greendale (WEA) + + + - B#9.99.

Clarity, grace and nonsense ... Neil Young

There comes a time when artists of a certain stature decide that their
muse can no longer be restrained by the confines of a mere rock song
and must spread its wings across an extended narrative. This is a
delusion that cannot be dealt with firmly enough. Since the Who birthed
the idea on 1969's sprawling Tommy, it has spawned numerous
incomprehensible mish-mashes of half-baked science fiction,
heavy-handed metaphors and Rizla philosophy.

Neil Young's 28th album, Greendale, is not the first time he has had
grand narrative ambitions. After the Goldrush was very loosely based on
a film script by actor Dean Stockwell, which was itself very loosely
based on making sense. Two other albums, Trans and American Stars and
Bars, also started out with concepts that evaporated en route to the
studio. Even the breathtakingly ambitious song Cortez the Killer begins
with a 16th-century Spanish conquistador and ends up being about Young
himself. Meanwhile, Young's cinematic dabblings under the alias Bernard
Shakey - author of the baffling tour documentary Journey Through the
Past and surreal nuclear-age farce Human Highway - make Mulholland
Drive look like Legally Blonde.

Billed as a "musical novel" with an accompanying DVD film starring
assorted Young family members, Greendale is neither a soundtrack nor,
thankfully, a rock musical. It is named after a fictional
northern-California town and the action is as follows: Grandpa Green is
an ornery patriarch who finds himself in the media spotlight when his
great-nephew Jed accidentally shoots a cop. Grandpa then suffers a
fatal heart attack while fending off a reporter. The death somehow
prompts his granddaughter Sun to become an eco-warrior, until FBI
surveillance prompts her to leave Greendale for good.

So much for the easy stuff. Other sections will remain impenetrable
until York Study Notes are persuaded to publish a Greendale edition.
Instances of clarity and grace alternate with wodges of unfathomable
nonsense that a good editor would have blue-pencilled from the first
draft. Much the same could be said of Young's entire career.

Although Greendale is a hefty 78 minutes long, it wisely avoids the
musical obesity that tends to accompany such ambitious enterprises.
With neither orchestras nor sound effects, Jeff Wayne's War of the
Worlds this is not. Instead, Young's band, Crazy Horse, crank out
rough-and-ready blues vamps as lo-fi as the White Stripes on a budget,
leaving Young's rolling couplets to take centre stage.

At their best, especially when the topic is loss, these are concise and
beautifully sad. On Carmichael, which describes the funeral of the
titular traffic cop, Young relates that: "For one year nobody parked a
car in Carmichael's space." Bringin' Down Dinner shows Grandpa's
daughter Edith arriving with food, unaware of his death. "What's
Grandpa doing on TV?" she asks over a funereal organ. "I've got his
dinner in the car." Young performs all the characters, which means that
in the thick of Grandpa's Interview, the album's 13-minute centrepiece,
he sounds worryingly like he is refereeing voices in his head. However,
it also means this remains a piece of storytelling rather than a radio
play that got out of hand.

Alas, Young's quality control is, like his pseudonym, shaky. The
pivotal shooting is gauchely described as "a split-second tragic
blunder", which suggests he has been taking stylistic tips from the
true-life stories in Take a Break magazine. In one bathetic couplet,
which rhymes "loaded up both barrels" with "a woman named Carol", the
influence appears to be Victoria Wood.

As with most first novels, musical or otherwise, it's the ending that
clunks the loudest. Whenever Young approaches environmental issues, he
is like someone trying to catch a butterfly with a JCB. Be the Rain is
an eco-anthem every bit as crassly didactic as previous missteps such
as 1990's Mother Earth (Natural Anthem). What does this have to do with
Jed or Carmichael or Grandpa? Nothing. It's just the musical equivalent
of a deus ex machina.

Given its many flaws, Greendale might be nothing more than a bizarre
curio like Lou Reed's Poe-faced folly The Raven - were it not for the
fact that, like all Young's concept records, it is fundamentally about
himself. Some of Young's best work has dealt with old age and death. He
shares Grandpa's mix of down-home wisdom ("A little love and affection
in everything that you do will make the world a better place") and
cantankerous rage ("It ain't an honour to be on TV and it ain't a duty
either"), and it's this that gives Greendale its emotional heft.

Perhaps we're not meant to understand it all. One lyric reads like a
winking reference to the whole puzzling but compelling exercise: "I've
got a new song to sing/ It's longer than all the others combined and it
doesn't mean a thing."

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