Tuesday, December 19, 2017
Neil Young 58: The Visitor
That wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that for a protest song to be effective, it must be as catchy as it is precise, while also demonstrating a universal appeal. Although The Visitor, recorded with his new pals Promise Of The Real, isn’t as monotonous as The Monsanto Years, he still struggles with getting his message across without sounding like a cranky old man. (In case it’s not obvious, the obsession this time is saving the planet from Donald Trump.)
Another barrier would be the overall sound. The band has been praised for their ease in accompanying Neil on a level beloved by fans of the Crazy Horse collaborations. But while that trio was sloppy to begin with, Promise Of The Real adds another guitar player, conga percussion, and sometimes keyboards to the soup, making everything sound like it was recorded from the other end of a theater. And in addition to his pump organ, many of the songs prominently feature what sounds like a toy piano. (As for his voice, he continually works outside what’s left of his range.)
The protest songs tend to follow the Greendale approach of chanted vocals with Neil barking over the top, usually around a catchphrase that would be below Graham Nash. “Already Great” isn’t too bad, but should be faded before the “whose street” chant dubbed onto the end. “Fly By Night Deal” doesn’t add much, but at least it’s over quickly. Sporting classic Neil solos, “Stand Tall” is a direct descendant, musically and thematically, of “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” and “Let’s Impeach The President”, so it sounds familiar, but the soundbites of talking heads on the news channels mar the track. “Diggin’ A Hole” and “When Bad Got Good” are a pair of plodding trash-rockers that make “T-Bone” seem like a word of genius, but if anything, they elevate “Children Of Destiny”. When premiered the previous Independence Day, it seemed alternately overblown and treacly, but it’s more cohesive, and welcome, in this context.
At least he varies the program somewhat. “Almost Always” is built around the main riff from “Unknown Legend”, and more gently airs his concerns about everything. “Change Of Heart” is even more gentle, with almost stream of consciousness words, and ending on a note of hope. The strangest track by far is “Carnival”, in which he channels Tom Waits via a mariachi backdrop in a demented vision, every now and then returning to his own voice for three bridges. At over ten minutes, “Forever” takes patience, particularly when he strains for the high notes, but it spreads a sense of calm that ties the album together at the end.
Few people in his employ would be reckless enough to challenge him, and it’s not Neil’s fault that some of his most reliable collaborators have gone to that recording studio in the sky. Still, it’s inevitable that The Visitor will be unfavorably compared to his earlier, classic work—especially given that the long-promised Archives was transformed from a physical format to an streaming Internet model the same day this album was released.
Meanwhile, a short film directed by Daryl Hannah and starring Neil and the band was completed in time for the following spring’s SXSW convention. Paradox was either an ecological parable, impenetrable fantasy in the spirit of Journey From The Past, or inside joke (take your pick). The accompanying soundtrack album—dubbed “Special Release 10” in Neil’s unique catalog nomenclature—was streamed on the Archives site and other major online services well in advance of its release, giving the curious plenty of time to decide if they just had to own it. Most of the music is improvised or seems that way, but not always similar or even as engrossing as the electric meanderings of Dead Man. “Diggin’ In The Dirt” is a simple fireside strum with the POTR boys. We’d be excited about a cover of Willie Nelson’s “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground”, except that Willie’s son Lukas sings it. Time is also devoted to a couple of blues covers, and the Nelson brothers warbling 45 half-remembered seconds of the Turtles’ “Happy Together”. Neil even carefully copyrighted the lyric (singular) of “Hey”.
As for more familiar fare, the album is bookended by an edit of “Show Me” from Peace Trail and an alternate mix of “Tumbleweed” from Storytone. The most interesting tracks are right in the middle: a live version of “Peace Trail” with the kids, a 10-minute wordless jam on “Cowgirl In The Sand”, and a solo “Pocahontas” with his trusty pump organ. Basically, an album side’s worth.