Neil Young News
By NEIL STRAUSS
Album review originally published on nytimes.com.
Musicians tend to judge themselves by different criteria than their audience does. When a guitarist breaks a string in the middle of a concert, for example, and perseveres in playing a hit with a missing G string, he may leave the stage upset and disappointed. But to the audience, watching the drama and spontaneity onstage may make it a better and more interesting performance than one perfectly played.
Neil Young has always understood this: when he breaks a string live, he usually treats it as an opportunity to improvise all sorts of new noises. Perfection has never been his forte, but a faithfulness to the overall concept and integrity of his vision, wherever it may lead him, has been a defining attribute. Rarely has this been more evident than on his new album with Crazy Horse, "Greendale," his first rock opera (for lack of a better name), released today on Reprise RecordsVivendi Universal.
At times Mr. Young sings out of tune, hits sour notes on the guitar or tries to squeeze too many words into a line. As for the story, it can be jumpy, inconsistent and lax in its metaphors. But the CD keeps rolling, and by the end the listener is left practically breathless with the beauty, hope, pathos and power of the music and the story. In a music culture in which technology allows for an unprecedented degree of fine-tuning, Mr. Young won't let himself be bothered by the details, allowing "Greendale" to succeed like a flower blossoming in the dirt.
Set in the small town of Greendale (located in a Southern California of the imagination), the story concerns a family, the Greens, caught in changing times. The old way of doing things is dying, the new way fast encroaching, and scattered here and there are a few idealists searching for an alternate way.
Young's heroes on "Greendale" are Grandpa, who represents the old way ("a little love and affection in everything you do"), and his granddaughter, Sun Green, who represents the conscientious alternative. (She would like to "be a goddess in the planet wars.") With characters like Sun Green and Earth Brown, "Greendale" is "Mother Earth" from Mr. Young's 1990 album "Ragged Glory," converted from a song-length anthem to an album-length allegory. It begins with Grandpa and his cantankerous wisdom and ends with Sun's youthful optimism. In between, Mr. Young introduces another Greendale resident, the Devil, who adds to the story line a police killing, a media frenzy, a heart attack and two grieving widows.
Musically "Greendale" falls somewhere between Mr. Young's mild-mannered solo musings and his torrential Crazy Horse jams. Several songs betray their origins as solo acoustic compositions, while even the most glorious electrified songs, "Grandpa's Interview" and "Be the Rain," don't roam far, in part because of Mr. Young's decision to leave the Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro out of the recording sessions. And because the Devil is busy in Greendale, Mr. Young builds a strong blues backbone into the first half of the CD.
"Greendale" is a strong set of songs, but it makes an even better multimedia work. In recent live shows, Mr. Young and Crazy Horse perform the CD in its entirety, with friends, relatives and associates acting out the scenes. Like Mr. Young's music, the staging - using rudimentary sets and cartoonish slides - is very simple yet very powerful. Included with the CD is a another way to experience "Greendale," a DVD with a live acoustic performance of the 10 tracks, with Mr. Young further elucidating the story and characters between songs. (Later this year he plans to release yet another elaboration of "Greendale": a feature film that he directed.)
Even if "Greendale" is a success, it doesn't mean that Mr. Young will be writing rock operas or musicals now. He refuses to operate from a place of premeditation, career jitters or concern for what reviewers or fans think. The composer John Cage once described his own credo as being open to whatever comes next. This is also Mr. Young's way of working, and the place from which "Greendale" spontaneously arose.
Despite his obvious immersion in his invented world and its characters (look at the level of detail on his Web site, www.neilyoung.com), Mr. Young never comes close to the pretension that auteurs of rock operas and concept albums often succumb to. Part of this is because of the invention of Grandpa, who even with his dying words mocks Mr. Young. On the CD's first verse, Grandpa is already at it:
Seem like that guy singin' this song
Been doing it for a long time
Is there anything he knows
That he ain't said?
Grandpa makes a valid point here, but at the same time Mr. Young's message - summed up in Greendale's ensemble finale as "Save the planet for another day" - does bear repeating.
Greendale Neil Young
Neil Young Album Reviews
Thrasher's Wheat - A Neil Young Archives