The precursor to Neil Young's late 80s 'comeback' was released only in Japan and Australia. It opens with one of Young's heaviest songs and the kind of track that perhaps contributed towards Young's admittedly dubious status as the 'Godfather of Grunge'. It was reportedly written about Stephen Stills. Cocaine Eyes is a statement of intent, a ferocious and raw song both musically and lyrically. The version of Don't Cry which is present here is a different version to the one that would end up on Freedom, it is approximately 45 seconds longer. It is one of three songs here that were also on the full album, Eldorado and On Broadway are the other two. Heavy Love, which is the other exclusive track, is less notable than Cocaine Eyes but is a solid Young rocker.
Eldorado is more than just a teaser for the Freedom album, it is worthwhile even just for Cocaine Eyes, but after a tumultuous decade it hinted that Young was getting his house back in order.
Freedom was to form the foundation for Neil Young's 1990s renaissance. It was as far a cry away from Young's genre experiments of the past decade, in which he would commit almost exclusively to one genre or style in any given album. Instead it is a varied album, perhaps Young’s most eclectic album since After the Gold Rush.
The opener is an acoustic version of Rockin' in the Free World. In truth it isn't a great performance. Young's vocal is abrasive and it doesn't stack up against the acoustic version of Hey Hey, My My from Rust Never Sleeps, which is far more evocative incarnation of what is now a classic rocker. Crime in the City is Young at his story-telling best, weaving a fluid and compelling narrative. Hangin' on a Limb is a beautiful acoustic song, which is only enhanced further by Emmylou Harris' backing vocals. It invokes Gram Parsons classics such as Heart's on Fire. The Ways of Love and Someday are the weakest tracks on the album. Both are lightweight and although they are not entirely without merit it would be a stronger album without them. No More is an up-tempo anti-drug lament which is worthy of The Needle and the Damage Done and Tonight's the Night, if slightly more accessible. The album finishes with the classic version of Rockin' in the Free World.
Overall Freedom was a fine 'comeback' for Young to end a commercially disastrous decade but it proved one that would reign in a 5 year period which would consolidate Young's reputation as one of the most enduring musical artists of the modern era.
Ragged Glory was Young returning to work with Crazy Horse. In truth it feels like it is picking up where Freedom left off with the electric version of Rockin' in the Free World. While there isn't any one song that quite reached the legendary status of that song, this is a much more consistent album than Freedom. The tone is constant throughout. The distorted guitars and the hippie themes are omnipresent. The opener, Country Home, was written in the 70s and like songs such as Too Far Gone from Freedom display more of a connection with the 70s than most of Young's work from the previous ten years did.
White Line is a reworking of a song called River of Pride which was originally set to be on the original Chrome Dreams album. F*!#in' Up is perhaps one of the best known songs from Ragged Glory. A live staple for Young himself it has been covered by bands such as Pearl Jam and I recall an interview in which Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous discussing the song in an interview a few years prior to his untimely death. An indication of Young’s continuing and wide reaching influence.
The (nearly) closing trio of Mansion on the Hill, Days that Used to Be and Love and Only Love are three of Young's most majestic rock songs. 'Mansion' and 'Days' in particular are drenched in 70s nostalgia and perhaps even a longing for the past. Love and Only Love features extended guitar workouts and a superb chorus.
Ragged Glory doesn’t contain the same variety as Horse classics Everybody Knows This is Nowhere and Zuma but it is Young at his most unbridled and energetic.
There is a distinct split within Neil Young's persona. The first is the 'Grunge Godfather' who is exemplified by Ragged Glory. The second is the guy who shot to fame in 1972 with mid-tempo country-rock songs like Heart of Gold and Old Man. It is interesting then Young's quintessential 'rock' album was followed by the long awaited sequel to the album that spawned those hits back in the 70s. The shift to quieter terrain was an act of necessity because Young had developed tinnitus following the touring for Ragged Glory (see the live albums Arc and Weld for an indication of why this may have been the case).
The opening track, Unknown Legend is vintage Young and is a heartfelt ode to his wife Pegi. Harvest Moon is perhaps the best known song from the album but it is perhaps the most lightweight. That's not to say that it is at all weak, it is the sound of a contented man and sits nicely as a companion piece to Unknown Legend. War of Man recalls the opening riff of Goin' Back from the Comes a Time album, while the lyrics reflect a much more sombre tone than the rest of the album up to this point. It could almost be the flipside to Love and Only Love. Both songs are preoccupied with conflict of some description, the lyrics of both songs take a personal angle on war yet the hook on Love and Only Love sounds more hopeful than those present on this song; “No one wins, It's a war of man”.
From Hank to Hendrix is one of my favourite Neil Young songs of all time. The lyrics are enigmatic, the central lines “Can we get it together? Can we still stand side by side?” is open to interpretation. It may well be about divorce, I've always read it as an anti-prejudice sentiment. Perhaps with a racial tilt, or perhaps about something completely separate. It sums Young up at his enigmatic best that his writing can be interpreted in different ways.
Sleeps With Angels
Sleeps With Angels is considered by many to be a latter day equivalent to Tonight's the Night. It is true that it shares a similar tone and both albums were made in the wake of the death of a musician (Danny Whitten for TTN and in this case, Kurt Cobain) but Angels is a more wide reaching album. Only the title track seems to directly reference Cobain's death. It shares the lo-fi aesthetic of Tonight’s the Night but also is possibly the most consistently restrained Crazy Horse performance. A performance that lends an ominous tone throughout.
The album opener, My Heart, feels at first like a curveball in the context of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse album but it isn't completely out of place. It is in fact a perfect intro to the album. It is delicate and heartfelt and displays the kind of vulnerable lyrics that were second nature to Young during his 1970s zenith.
Prime of Life kicks into gear and contains perhaps the most optimistic lyrics of the whole album. Driveby and Sleeps with Angels are two of the darkest songs in the set. On the former Young laments; “I can't believe a machine gun sings, Driveby” while he deals with Cobain’s death head-on in the title track “He's always on someone's mind”, Young ponders amid the sound of distorted guitars. On Western Hero the style shifts to a more acoustic setting and the breadth of the subject matter is wider but the impact is no less heartfelt. He laments the fallen soldier but also displays an empathy with those who survived the war “Through the years he changed somehow, he’s different now”.
The extended guitar work on Change Your Mind adds to the long line of Crazy Horse extended-jams in Young’s catalogue. Interestingly the verses are more effective than the hook which does fall flat in a relative sense but each instrumental part elevates the track once more. Piece of Crap could be Fuckin’ Up: Part 2. It is a punk-fuelled anti-consumerist rant which actually lightens the mood.
Sleeps with Angels may well have become my favourite of all Young’s 90s albums. It has a dark undercurrent and an almost noirish tone which stays with the listener. At the same time not much of it is particularly immediate. Until recently, Ragged Glory would have been a clear winner in any head to head. Sleeps with Angels, however, may well have more depth than any album Young has made since On the Beach.
Mirror Ball was recorded with Grunge disciples (if you subscribe to the ‘Godfather’ thing) Pearl Jam. Young uses Pearl Jam like he would use Crazy Horse. In fact it is hard to imagine this sounding too much different if it were a Crazy Horse record, the only gripe perhaps being that Pearl Jam clearly don’t have the same kind of familiarity with Young. There are no tracks like Change Your Mind from Sleeps with Angels or Love and Only Love from Ragged Glory, which contain the extended instrumental sections. Nonetheless the inclusion of Pearl Jam added weight to Young’s enduring and escalating status amid the 90s hard and alternative rock scene. The idea behind this album being a minimalist dirge. Young can be heard telling his bandmates "No tuning, nothing," before Song X kicks in. I used to have a major problem with this album, I could barely hear Young’s vocals. Somehow that is less of a problem now, I can’t explain why.
The album’s highlights include the opening trio Song X, Act of Love and I’m the Ocean. The latter being one of Young’s best songs of the decade. The tempo of the drums are what really drive the song. Even through the dirge of guitar noise seeps a relentless melody. The opening lyrics “I'm an accident, I was driving way too fast” may refer to Young’s own past, he continues in the second verse “People my age, they don't do the things I do”. Young was no doubt aware of his own status, otherwise he may not have been making a record with Pearl Jam in the first place.
The rest of the album maintains the pace, only breaking for the 46 seconds of What Happened Yesterday and Neil Young’s pump organ. That gives way to one of the most memorable guitar riffs on the album, belonging to Peace and Love. The lyrics of such barely even need to be analysed. Throw Your Hatred Down continues a similar lyrical theme but the central lyric itself carries its own weight, once again it barely requires an explanation. Though it is an effective lyric in a way it also highlights the album’s main shortcoming. That being the lack of more than two or three really memorable individual tracks. The raucous production values in Mirror Ball are reminiscent of Ragged Glory but the reason the earlier album is a classic is the sheer number of great songs that are in that set. One gets the feeling that Young had either run out of great songs by this point in or that he was holding back. Nonetheless Mirror Ball is more than a mere Young-Jam indulgence.
Without the benefit of the visuals of Jim Jarmusch’s superb feature film, Neil Young’s soundtrack to Dead Man is perhaps a bit more arduous than the average fan might want to experience too frequently. The recording process was straightforward, Young set up his instruments in a recording studio and played them whilst watching the film. There are sections of dialogue taken from the film through the disc. The effect of the excerpts of dialogue are lost here to an extent though. Without any real context they tend to sound like incoherent ramblings. The writing in Dead Man doesn’t have the same effect as a film like Pulp Fiction, in which the dialogue zips along in a way that lends itself perfectly to sound-bites. Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack may be fundamentally flawed as a single entity, although not without a passing charm. Despite this, within the film itself it is inspired.
I once read a review of this album in Q Magazine in which they awarded it 1 star. This was before I’d ever heard the album. I eventually bought the album anyway, expecting the worst, this was when I was younger and actually put stock in critics reviews. The opener Big Time kicks in immediately with a catchy yet sludgy, almost doom-laden riff. What follows are enigmatic, freewheeling lyrics that effortlessly ooze from Young’s pen and the kind of extended guitar workouts that made Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s name. Loose Change continues the theme, it is moderately less memorable but is still a solid track. Slip Away is a slow electric dirge with a hazy sounding vocal hook and equally hazy sounding guitar solos.
Really the first three tracks on this album are just Young and The Horse jamming. By the time Slip Away has finished the album is roughly 25 minutes old and it is clear that Broken Arrow isn’t going to win any new fans. On the other hand that has never concerned Young before this point. Changing Highways is an up-tempo number which breaks any monotony. Scattered contains a catchy hook with quite an understated melody yet an effectively catchy one. This Town is quite forgettable but Music Arcade is the real anomaly in here. It is a solo track containing some of Young’s most compelling lyrics of the decade. It has that unique Neil Young quality of sounding optimistic yet sorrowful at the same time. Lyrics like “I was walkin’ down Main Street, Dodgin' traffic with flyin' feet, That's how good I felt”.
The album ends with a rough sounding rendition of Jimmy Reed’s Baby, What You Want Me to Do which is almost drowned out by the sound of a bar full of people. Its inclusion is slightly baffling but 30 years into Young’s career it would be naïve to expect anything less. Broken Arrow is an uneven album, it is undeniably top-heavy and it was a low-key end to a resurgent decade for Young but taken on its own merits it is a worthwhile addition to his and Crazy Horse’s canon.