For a double national treasure, one that could legitimately be claimed by two countries, Neil young is not the most enigmatic of the oldest musical statesmen. Taken together, the last two albums of the Canadian-born American (2019 Colorado and now, barn) show exactly where and how they were made – in a barn in Colorado recently adopted by this longtime Californian. Widely recorded live, both albums pair Young with his most powerful backing band, Crazy Horse.
Perhaps more significantly, barn is probably Young’s least frustrating new album in quite some time. These are 10 compelling songs about love and life, about the recent past, the bygone years and our future, delivered with verve, emotion and six-string authority grunts. Sadly, Young’s former label Geffen sued the prolific but bloodthirsty artist in 1983 for delivering records that “were not commercial in nature and musically unusual from Young’s previous records.” Strangely, barn in fact meets most of these criteria. It’s a Crazy Horse record that is both raucous and very melodious, saturated with group bonhomie.
“The horse’s gait in the rhythm that I feel one way or another / And the melody that I play”, sings Young on the opening of the album, Song of the seasons. It may be referring to the equine lope which underlies a number of barn‘s tunes, but it’s not a leap at all to imagine Young meaning the other septuagenarians tucked behind him in the Draft Outhouse, a structure captured on the video for another of barnnuanced and captivating pieces, Happy to see you again.
The horse has changed shape lately, of course: guitar mainstay Frank “Poncho” Sampedro retired after 2012 Psychedelic pill. A son Colorado, his place is taken by Nils Lofgren, who performed with the Crazy Horse in the early 1970s before becoming a mainstay of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. Lofgren’s presence is key: subtle but unmistakable.
Naturally, Lofgren cranks up his amp for Crazy Horse’s classic two-guitar workouts – the swinging and growling Canerican, let’s say – an autobiographical ballad in which Young pledges his faith to these twin mothers as the group reaches its resonant stride. âCanerican is who I am,â he confesses, âall colors are who I am / Support my brother for freedom in this country. There is a lot to offer on tracks like the furious Human Race, which imagines the thundering heather of “fires and floods” that gas-hungry humanity leaves in its wake.
Just as often, however, Lofgren plays the honky-tonk piano or accordion, lending barn a shimmering prettyness that goes beyond the more typical Crazy Horse cordite burn. The fault that seasoned NY&CH fans will find with barn is the relative shortage of guitar fireworks. The crossfade at the end of Canerican, half-solo, is a perverse and self-destructive act.
But the inclination towards tinkling and wheezing means the bittersweet songs gain in melancholy, as with the call and response of the harmonica and accordion on Song of the Seasons. Another key track, Heading West, gallops happily, Young’s guitar in the foreground, recalling his idyllic childhood and his parents’ divorce, told here as a road trip west with his mother. The lightness of the song is underpinned by Lofgren’s carefree work on the keys.
At 76, Young wants to embrace change, driven to some extent by his relationship with actor and environmentalist Daryl Hannah. She’s the subject of the album’s gooey centerpiece, Shape of You (nothing to do with Ed Sheeran’s more dashing song). Love permeates a number of these tracks, little more than the final cut, Don’t Forget Love. Underlined by the falsetto choirs of Crazy Horse, it’s a warning to look into your best feelings.
The crowning glory of this album, however, combines Young’s tendency to bald self-description with a sense of deep, perhaps existential, uncertainty. On one level, the smoldering They Might Be Lost finds Young and his other half pacing the porch waiting for guys in a truck, perhaps moving some of the couple’s gear from one rural redoubt to another. . (Young and Hannah recently bought a property in Omemee, Ont., where he grew up.) In this domestic scene, Young kills time, recalling the good old days through âthe smoke that I burnâ. But the weather is changing. The truck is late. âThe boysâ could be lost. It’s hard to know.
What about the past? Who knows that either. âThe jury’s out on the good old days, you know,â Young sings, âjudgment is falling soon / I don’t quite remember what I knew. This song about ignorance finds Crazy Horse in its most elegant and consoling form: Young’s warm harmonica and Lofgren’s understated touches have their own quiet conversation while the rhythm section of Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot is a constant and discreet witness to Young’s thousand-meter gaze. .