CD Review: Neil Young - Chrome Dreams Two
“An ambulance can only go so fast”, sang Neil Young thirty-three years ago in the stony career meditation “Ambulance Blues.” “It’s easy to get buried in the past/ When you try to make a good thing last.”
It’s kind of funny to think about guys like Pete Townshend and Eric Clapton making records about the perils of aging at a ripe old twenty-eight. But for Neil, it’s been a constant theme, the need to escape what came before while staying rooted to his deepest self. Trace the path of his thirty-three solo albums and each one is a sonic departure from the last. Certain themes come back around, but only after a while.
Even in his later years, he hasn’t lost the ability to surprise, making unprecedented journeys into Memphis soul on 2002’s Are You Passionate? and the dreaded rock opera format for Greendale a year later. The tranquility and elegance of Prairie Wind gave way to raw anger and power-trio attack on Living With War only eight months after. Even these genre pieces had elements of the unexpected. Has any rock artist ever combined the flavors of Nashville and Memphis so seamlessly as on Prairie Wind's title track? A power trio, plus trumpet and choir? Dude remains a weirdo, and as a result, the most interesting of his senior colleagues.
The new Chrome Dreams 2 comes as something of a surprise as well. For the first time since Freedom in 1989, we get all of Neil’s multiple personalities in the same room. What’s really surprising, all of them are in fighting form and getting along well. The combined effort is, honestly, the best Neil Young album in seventeen years.
One big point in its favor is an actual moment from two decades ago, the eighteen-minute Ordinary People. Long revered by bootleg collectors, the finished product lives up to the hype as Neil’s ferocious guitar battles the horn section through an obtuse panorama of drunks, pushers, homeless factory workers, gunslingers and out-of-work models. The patch-of-ground people. Asked to pass judgment on these characters, all he can offer is, “Some are saints, and some are jerks!” Like the best of Neil’s lyrics, the images are smeared but they make a big impression. It’s one of his major works, and something you really need to hear in your lifetime.
But why stop at one epic per album? Half an hour later, out bursts No Hidden Path, and the Crazy Horse fans in the house start drooling from the first thick, distorted note; it’s instantly recognizable as one of those chord progressions that could easily support a good twelve minutes of guitar solo. It can and it does. We haven’t had a gnarly twelve minute solo on a Neil Young album in way too long, this makes up for lost time.
Those listeners who favor the hippie in the plaid shirt may now be making a list of tracks to program OUT of the album, in which case you’d better stick Dirty Old Man on there. It’s a lurching, two-note singalong along the lines of Piece of Crap or Farmer John, bragging about nailing the boss’ wife in the parking lot, peppered with squealing solos as mindlessly inspired as the tune itself. Goofy, amped-up tastelessness has also been sadly lacking from his recent work, and if you consider that a bad thing, play this one first.
The mellow side of the coin is no less impressive. The elegiac waltz Shining Light conjures the spirit of Roy Orbison, Young crooning “Show your compassion, let me feel mine” over a dramatic chord progression. With VIP sideman Ben Keith dripping steel guitar over the proceedings, Ever After and Beautiful Bluebird feel like outtakes from the Harvest sessions. But the killer here is the closing lullaby The Way, a sing-songy number for piano and voice (this makes it four albums in a row that he’s closed with the voice of a massed choir) that will ring in the brain for hours. It’s the perfect finish to a fairly long album that never feels long, and never outstays its welcome.
What a great day for Neil Young fans, all of them, from the hardcore noise junkies to the Heart of Gold toe-tappers. Finally, something we can agree on.Ordinary People
Neil Young appears at the Nokia Theater on Tuesday, October 30 and Friday, November 2, performing separate acoustic and electric sets, backed by Ben Keith, Rick The Bass Player Rosas and Ralph Molina. Tickets are still available for both shows.
Photos by Sawyer Wyatt and Joann Pichardo used with permission.