Greendale Album Review

The National Post, 08 September 2003

Neil Young News

Back where he belongs: Neil Young's Greendale triptych is all about losing the Neil Young baggage
By Aaron Wherry
08 September 2003
National Post

By some accounts, Neil Young has lost it. Take, for instance, a recent review in the normally Neil-friendly Mojo music magazine, penned by the impressively named Addison Dewitt III.

In a review of Young's concept album cum theatre production cum movie, Greendale -- a tale of the modern world's part in the demise of a small-town family -- Dewitt asks rhetorically, "Has the guy gone completely off his rocker?"

To wit: "Imagine that mumbling drifter by the side of the highway scrawling endless, tiny complaints on hunks of cardboard, only this particular crackpot has, say, $25-million in his jeans pocket. And somebody's given the fucker a megaphone."

Next to an illustration that paints Young as a lecherous old man lurking in the shadows, notepad in hand, beside Satan himself, Dewitt continues: "... despite its kooky charms, Greendale is just one more lazy Neil Young album. He's piled on the minutiae for this one, crafting extensive biographies and maps via his Web site, but once you subtract the megaphones and nutty affectations, what's left? ... Increasingly, Young has nothing to reference but Neil Young and his shrinking bag of tricks, painting himself into the most remote corner of the barn."

Pity Mr. Dewitt wasn't in town last week. With Young in Toronto to perform Greendale: The Play and present Greendale: The Movie, the two might have had the opportunity to hash out their differences over complimentary water at Shakey's "In Conversation With" session as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Of course, the "In Conversation With" session is no place for disagreement. It is, instead, a place for discussion -- which is a nice way of saying thou must treat the honoured guest with due reverence.

In Dewitt's place, then, we had esteemed and affable New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell. And in Mitchell's hands, Dewitt's cantankerous drifter became something of a decent guy. This just in: Crotchety Curmudgeon Makes Joke, Smiles. Who knew?

Hours removed from a performance at the Air Canada Centre (one that inspired another run of critical poo-pooing), Young even went to some length to explain himself, which wouldn't be all that remarkable if it weren't for the fact that Neil Young has never really bothered to explain himself.

"Originally, I was just making a record," he began. "I wanted to open myself up and do something that really mattered."

This admission is not that groundbreaking. Ask Mariah Carey what she wanted to do with her last album and she'll tell you the same thing. Everybody wants to matter. Otherwise they wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the morning (unless, of course, they wanted to matter too much -- we're looking at you, Brian Wilson).

"I was trying to re-establish what I do -- with myself. And kind of reinvent where I was coming from and get back to the roots of what made me me," he continued. "My plan was to get rid of the distractions in my life, things that had accumulated over time that were now in my way."

"Like what?" Mitchell asked.

"Like the history of my music," Young responded to guffaws from the audience, though he seemed quite serious. "The idea of being Neil Young now is different than being Neil Young in 1967. Nobody knew who I was then. So I didn't have to deal with that baggage. When I was very young, I would travel from time to time and the thing I liked the best about showing up somewhere with my band was that we were new and we were different and there was a mystery about us because no one knew who we were."

All of which would seem to make that last bit from Dewitt all the more crushing.

"There's no new information here," Young said later, acknowledging that though the method of delivery is different, the ideas that have forever dominated his music remain in Greendale. "It's all the same themes. I can't reinvent how I think."

That, depending on your point of view and choice in cliches, is either his saving grace or Achilles heel. In either case, it creates a tension. On one hand, he wants the mystery of something new; on the other hand, he's still revelling in his trademark themes.

"To me it's refreshing to go out on stage, play 10 new songs and survive," he said. "If you don't do what people expect they get very pissed off with you."

Reviews of his live shows would bear this out -- the stage production of Greendale panned, the encore of greatest hits celebrated.

And, in this regard, Young again asserts his artistic independence -- an admirable, but dangerous, card to play for any rock star who would rather not be banished to the barn.

"If the entire crowd turned on me, I'd have to find a new crowd," he said. "[But] I'm not working for the audience."

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