To many, Neil Young is not so much a musician as a force of North American nature. Grizzly, rocky, ragged, redolent of gathering moss and hewn from Jack Daniels barrel-oak he is the Last Man Standing, Last of the Good Old Boys from the days when music was music and made from proper stuff like wood, not plastic like nowadays. What’s more, while most of his contemporaries have either gone to the Great Gig in the Sky or retired to spend more time with their liver disorders, Neil’s still out there rockin’ up a storm in the free world, either as noisy Godfather of Grunge or brewing up his gentle country-rock moonshine for folks who still appreciate the fine stuff.
He’s the renegade rocker who despises the music industry, despite having wheedled a multi-million dollar deal out of Warners that probably doesn’t reflect his true market worth. He prides himself on being “deeply affected by what goes on around him” yet lives out on a ranch, surrounded by as much wood and twigs as you could shake a stick at. His has often been the guilt-ridden, carrying voice of liberal angst, yet his idea of being a “maverick” is to stick up for Texan billionaire/Presidential hopeful Ross Perot (“Ross never sleeps!”).
So what is Neil Young really like? I mean, really! For starters, there’s That Voice, the reediest, shrilly anaemic whine in rock. It’s only because he’s got a face like a mule’s arse that he appears “gnarled” enough to get away with it. Caught between the two stools of his heroes, Dylan and The Byrds, it’s an attempt to meld the sandpaper, caustic abrasion of the former with the honeyfied harmonies of the latter but succeeds only in being too weedy to be rugged, too wobbly to be mellifluous. It’s also a desperately white voice, one in which you can lose yourself and imagine there was never a blues, never a funk, certainly never a disco (Young pointedly prides himself on the fact that live album Weld is almost without rhythm, “not like today’s programmed music”. Hmm).
Despite liberal sops like “Southern Man”, Young’s canon projects an all-Ayran woodsman’s fantasy world, in which white country-rockers muse stay close to the elements, away from the city and muse on the eternal verities. Young’s guitar style is equally amateurish. His solos don’t so much take you on an odyssey as meander lethargically, like an old man who keeps wandering off from the tour party while everyone else sits in the mini-bus wondering where the silly old fool’s got to now.
Moreover, as with The Grateful Dead, you can never fully relax into his fretboard ambience because you have to brace yourself knowing that at any moment he might start “singing” again. But then, what about The Songs? Well, what indeed? Ordinary, semi-pleasant affairs at most. What is lauded as emotional universality in songs like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” is actually a sentimental simplicity which Young seems to be straining to achieve. The anti-drugs fable “Tonight’s The Night” hardly breaks new ground, though Young sings with a presumptuous fervour that seems to imply no one’s ever dealt with its subject matter before.
As for “Cortez The Killer”, fucking hell. “Hate was just a legend/War was never known.” And then, he liked, killed them, generic viagra man. What a – killer. What a drag. As for “Like A Hurricane” it has all the insubstantial melodic pomp of Jefferson Starship. Another myth about Young is that he’s always set his face against current fashions. Bull-shit. Young’s always desperately, embarrassingly, tried to hitch his wagon to prevailing trends. With “Hey, Hey, My My” it was punk, as he namechecks “Jahhhnnny Raaahhten”, though his very pronunciation of the name jars, as if coming from the mouth of Richard Briers. In the Eighties, with Trans, he tried to ape the synth-rock of Devo, with laughable results, Then later, he started hanging out with Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam (he even appeared onstage with The Alarm at one stage) in order to seem 20 years younger and 20 times more relevant. What Young loved about Pearl Jam was the big, petulant electrical squall they worked up, a means of aggrandising and inflating a somewhat small and tentative musical talent into something that seemed big, dangerous and important. But Young’s only real achievement is to have carried on. Time someone arranged him a party and a carriage clock. Oh, and do something about those stupid whiskers, man. You look like Matthew fucking Arnold.