Tuesday, September 4, 2012

CD Odyssey Disc 435: Neil Young

I've just finished hosting the annual NFL football pool, with mixed results (missed out on a couple of QBs I was targeting in the middle rounds, but such is life).  I love writing, literature and all things artsy, and football is the yang to that yin.  It is an exquisite and carefully planned chess match of cunning and strategy, where each move ultimately ends in a violent high-speed collision of two large men.  Even with my cherished Dolphins about to endure another losing season, I’m still excited for the kick off.

Disc 435 is…Neil Young (Self-Titled)
Artist: Neil Young

Year of Release: 1969

What’s up with the Cover?  Sheila thinks this looks like Neil Young as painted by Emily Carr.  I agree, although I’ve never been a huge Carr fan, and so this cover unsurprisingly fails to impress.  I guess the city reflected in his clothes is a nice touch.  I try to do a bit of that myself when I'm in the country.

How I Came To Know It: I first heard this album at the Student Union Building at UVic in the late eighties.  The fry cook was playing the whole thing over the cafeteria loudspeakers.  I liked it and asked to see the cover.  but I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to buy it until probably ten years later.  Sometimes you just have to let an idea soak for a bit.

How It Stacks Up:  I have fifteen Neil Young albums, which isn’t even half of his catalogue.  Of the fifteen, his debut is nearer the bottom of the list.  I’ll say 14th, right behind the recently reviewed “Tonight’sthe Night”.

Rating:  3 stars

I have a saying I’ve used many times over the years.  At least I think it’s my saying; if I’ve borrowed it from somewhere else inadvertently, then I apologize for the missed citation.  Anyway, the saying goes, “true beauty steals into only the quietest of souls.”  I usually use it when I hear idiots talking during a movie or a concert, or sometimes (more gently) to chide a meowing cat.

Maybe the saying applies to me this time, because having just given a solid three listens to the subtle and gentle beauty of Neil Young’s solo debut I have to stand and count myself among those who don’t fully get it.

I appreciate that it is beautiful.  You’d have to be dead inside to not hear the beauty in the opening instrumental track, “The Emperor of Wyoming.” With its soft Southern fiddle and ‘kick back in the tall grass’ guitar strumming, it’s custom built for a relaxing listen in a quiet moment.  Unfortunately, “Emperor” is over in under two and half minutes, and the album never captures the same understated grace again.

Neil comes close with “Here We Are in the Years,” which has a nice mix of piano and guitar, with pastoral lyrics featuring taking your dog for a long walk, and regretting that city folk don’t appreciate the slow pace of the country.  It is an intricate construction that carries a simple melody over a lot of changing, shifting instrumentation.  I don’t honestly know entirely what is going on, but all the changes of pace made it a bit hard for me to follow along.  It is a little easier listening now in the dark of the late evening, but on my walks to and from work in rush hour it had a hard time achieving any emotional resonance.

On other songs like “The Old Laughing Lady” I found myself wanting to tone it down a little bit, take out the jazz piano bits, and maybe slow it down a little bit, country style, but instead Neil goes a bit gospel, with some backup singers and a groovy beat and more of the piano bits I want so badly to take out.  Maddeningly, it is still a great song, but damn he makes it hard to worm your way inside of it.

Neil is an exceptional (and under-rated) guitar player, and on his solo debut he experiments with some strange guitar sounds, many of which are well ahead of what I would expect for early 1969.  Unfortunately, sometimes songs like “What Did You Do To My Life?” feel like their future home would be on schlocky AM radio.  It is a lot better than the AM radio I’m thinking of, but I can’t help that it evokes the memory of lesser songs when I hear it.

The love songs are suitably anthemic and “If I Could Have Her Tonight” and “I’ve Loved Her So Long” are both examples of how the golden age of free love can make even the most ham-fisted lyrics somehow come off believable.

As is common for early Neil Young records, this one ends with a long and rambling final track.  This record’s entry is “The Last Trip to Tulsa” which has a fine example of how you can make simple guitar strumming very dynamic simply by mixing up the vigour that you hit the chords a bit as you go.  The song has a lot of folksy wisdom (as well as a healthy helping of what sounds like psychedelic babble).  My favourite piece of both is:

“I used to be a folk singer
Keeping managers alive
When you saw me on a corner
And told me I was jive.”

This line brings home just how fine a work this record is, and yet how much I struggle to properly appreciate it.  Even when Neil spells it out for me, I still find myself wanting…less.  Not just on this final song (which could easily shed a couple of minutes) but on the record overall.

I liked this record, but I didn’t love it.  That said, I’ll keep listening to it in years to come, and try to remember to be somewhere very quiet when I do.

Best tracks:  The Emperor of Wyoming, The Old Laughing Lady, Here We Are In the Years

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