Friday, July 15, 2011

Neil Young in the land of Zuma

Finally bought Zuma (1975) in HMV Oxford Street, London, on 5 May 2011, the last day of our European holiday that year. Know the live versions of"Cortez the Killer" from Weld (1991) and "Barstool Blues" and "Danger Bird" from The Year of the Horse (1997) but I'd never heard the other cuts.

Although plenty has been written about Neil Young's idiosyncratic waywardness in pursuing his muse since his first solo release in 1969 and the consensus seems to be, though he may have put out some below par albums in a 42 year career span, that essentially he can't do wrong. My opinion is that his most consistently worthwhile body of work consists of the albums released in the first ten years, from Neil Young (1969) to Rust Never Sleeps (1979), with the next 30 years being mostly hit and miss, with a lot of so-so music and banal, clich├ęd lyrics. The poet in Neil Young kind of burnt out with Rust Never Sleeps but I would imagine this to be an irony old Neil never intended at the time.

Anyhow, in that first decade Neil Young produced wonderful melanges of laid back country rock and some of the most rampant, hypnotic and intense rock music ever. There is just no beating Neil Young and Crazy Horse in full cry, as one can hear from the Fillmore East live set in die Archive series, Live Rust or any of the raging guitar cuts from Everybody Knows this Is Nowhere or Zuma.

It also seems to me that Young somehow felt, the older he got, that it was less and less important to be a rock poet and to write elliptical, allusive lyrics and concentrated on being pretty direct in his opinions and sentiments with a resultant loss in the value of the songs. If the tune and the playing could not carry a particular song onto a higher plane, the lyrics simply stuck in the craw because they were so trite and obvious.

My collection of Neil Young albums was put together kind of haphazardly, starting with the records of Rust Never Sleeps (My first Young purchase), Harvest, Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Re-Ac-Tor. Then I started off my CD collection with Decade, Ragged Glory, Weld, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Freedom, Trans, Harvest Moon, Unplugged, Landing on Water, Mirror Ball, Sleeps With Angels, This Note's For You, Everybody's Rockin', The Year of the Horse, Silver & Gold, Live at Fillmore East, Live at Massey Hall and now Zuma and Le Noise, which brings me right up to date.
Of these albums only Silver & Gold has been an outright disappointment. I do not care what artistic endeavour and level of creativity it is supposed to represents. It just kind of sucks.

You'll notice that (up to Le Noise) I do not own any Neil Young albums from the last 15 years or so, except for Silver & Gold and this is mostly because I lost interest in the music as a compelling passion. The same goes for Bob Dylan, whose mid-Sixties albums are the ones I find interesting. I did buy the two most recent releases and though they have been well-received by critics, and apparently the public too, the triteness of the songs and Dylan's severely croaky voice hardly makes these albums truly worthwhile listening experiences. On Blond on Blond, for example, or John Wesley Harding, Dylan sounded like a man who believed in what he was doing. Over the last decade or so Dylan and Neil Young sound like professional songwriters who must fulfil record contracts and have the ability, acquired through many years of application to their song writing craft, to write lyrics that almost sound significant yet are simply workmanlike and tunes that mitigate the banality of the words.

So. I have come to Zuma about 36 years after its release and after I have listened to a lot of Neil Young music. The first impression is that the music is a mixture of styles drawn from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After the Gold rush, Harvest and On Beach. This is good because these are good albums. And Zuma is a good album. Whether it is a great Neil Young record is debatable though. The songs are pleasant enough listening and the weight here is towards the more tuneful, retrospective cuts with even what should have been raging guitar workouts being quite restrained. Perhaps the problem lies in listening to Neil Young albums out of sequence and long after the event. Coming after On the Beach, and if I had bought the record in 1975, Zuma's impact might have been greater and more favourable. It does not have much of an impact now; not even as a previously unheard Young set. Perhaps the lesson is that one should not really be a completist. At some point the artist stumbles, or goes down an unfathomably silly avenue, and then the magic is gone. Or it is simply a case of too much of the same, or more or less similar, thing. Sooner or later stasis sets in and innovation no longer occurs and you realise that merely trying new sounds, techniques or attitudes do not by themselves make for interesting, compelling music.

My impression of Zuma is that Neil Young has collected a bunch of songs that reflect various aspects of his musical vision over the previous five or six years for quite pleasant listening experiences but not a revelatory listening experiences. Whether it is the country tinged balladry, the folky musings or the guitar workouts, this is Neil Young by numbers.

Makes me wonder whether I should bother with any other items from his back catalogue that have not been favourable already, like Re-Ac-Tor or Time Fades Away. If there is no longer any suspension of disbelief and not much belief, what is the point of being a completist collector of albums by an artist one admires?





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