Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Neil Young Album Reviews - 'The Doom Trilogy'

Archive reviews of the three albums that have collectively come to be known as Neil Young's 'Doom Trilogy', following the huge critical and commercial success of 'Harvest' in 1972. Arguably some of his very his finest work and frustratingly some of his least known and lowest selling...

‘Time Fades Away’ (1973)
[archive review from 2005]

What an incredible portrait of an artist under pressure! After the huge success of ‘Harvest’, the demand for Neil was such that he was expected to grind through a seemingly endless tour playing to massive, expectant crowds. This live album chronicles some moments from that tour & not always the best ones. What a brave decision to release a rough live album containing all new songs directly after a world beating success. The songs are generally not among his finest, but they are truly perfect examples of songs written under immense pressure & the burden of great expectation. That is to say under the pressure of a now enormous fan base expecting him to equal or better 'Harvest', while he is being driven into the ground with the nightly grind of live shows, in a new city almost every day & living out of suitcases. This album is rough as guts but should be cherished for capturing the absolute truth of a moment in time. Neil deserves plaudits for ‘keeping it real’ & making no attempts to clean it up, or smooth it over (or bury it for that matter!). Neil’s’ voice shows all the strain of the months of live performances & the band nearly buckle under the pressure of performing so much new material to often critical and impatient audiences largely expecting faithful 'Harvest' reproductions. Who even has time to rehearse when you travel all day & play at night? A couple of these songs sound like the band first heard them at sound check that afternoon. Somehow though, against massive odds, it works.

The title track is a fast, countrified boogie about a middle aged man's broken down relationship with his drug-dealing son. It has an energetic, speed-freak abandon in the performance & Neil seems to be running on not much more than nerves. It is not a great song & the lyrics are sloppy & vague, but the sadistically gleeful feeling & energy carry it along. Who is this guy? Not the guy who sang that lovely ‘Heart Of Gold’, surely? ‘Journey Through The Past’ is a brief, teasing return to ‘Harvest’ stylings; a sweet reflection on the past very much in the expected mellow, confessional singer-songwriter style & it gives a false sense of security after the disconcerting title track. “Ah! there he is again”, ‘Harvest’ fans sigh with relief, “glad that’s over!”. But no! in crashes ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’, a cracked-voice rant digging at religious hypocrisy with lots of out of tune whoops & interjections from the band. I love it! It is rough, cheeky, indignant & full of life.

Track four ‘LA’ is the high watermark for me. A jet-black humoured & disturbingly gleeful imagining of the apocalypse in Los Angeles. With a slow but determined slop rock grind, the song builds unflinchingly in intensity as it progresses. The steel guitar pleads & the piano tinkles in a beautiful dance around an aching, fractured melody. 'Don’t you wish that you could be here too?' Neil accuses rather than asks. If it sounds as good as this on those shaking streets, then damn the fucking earthquakes, I’ll be there! 'LA' is inspired, under-rehearsed, make it up as you go rock & roll at its best. This is one of my very favourite Neil Young songs. Definitely in my top 5. ‘Love In Mind’ shows that the melancholy romantic still lurks somewhere behind the frazzled madness & it’s a brief & beautiful solo piano ballad to end side one.

Beginning side two, the autobiographical ‘Don’t Be Denied’ is a bit of a let down. Some critics feel it is the highlight of the album & a canon classic. I find it painfully plodding & melodically impotent. I also find the repetition of the one chorus line ‘don’t be denied’ ad nauseum, lazy & dull. I suppose though he was trying to hammer the point home with no pretty poetry or rhymes that might distract you & let you forget it. By the by, the theme of repetition (in different forms & with different meanings) is one he returns to often, most notably in the albums ‘Reactor’ and ‘Broken Arrow’, with varying levels of inspiration & success. ‘The Bridge’ is another short piano ballad with a pleasing melody & it is lovely & heartfelt if not a bona-fide classic. It also has some sweet harmonica. Neils’ singing on the ballads is as sweet & beautifully pained as ever. The strain in his voice is not as evident as on the rocky shouters.

It is only on ‘Last Dance’ that the album tips over the edge of madness & total collapse that it had been brilliantly teetering on. It is even more rambling & sloppy than the rest of the album & without a tune to hold it together, it descends into utter confusion. Maybe that is where it had to go, as it does sum up the album perfectly in a way. It doesn’t make for good listening though. Listening to this track again as I write, there is some nice guitar work half way through & some stunning piano work, but overall it is still an ugly mish-mash.

Where is the blueprint for this album in rock history? Where is the map to help listeners to navigate it? I just know that this is a vital & precious album for the circumstances it brilliantly captures & for what Neil bravely let it be where precious few others would have.

‘On The Beach’ (1973)
[archive review from 2005]

Is this album really worth all the fuss? Is it really the holy grail we all made out, or is it just because it was for so long out of print & so many people had not heard the lions share of the album until 2001 (apart from the two tracks on ‘Decade’) & could only judge it by repute & desperate hope. Well I had this on LP & knew it well, so I hope my opinion is fairly balanced. I should also say that the release of the also long unavailable ‘Reactor’ did nothing to change my opinion of that album & as for ‘American Stars & Bars’, well I’m going to go town on that one later, so I think this album is worth a lot of fuss.

Starting with the perky ‘Walk On’, a rebuttal to his critics who had savaged him for ‘Time Fades Away’ & the ‘Tonight’s the Night’ tour probably, it is a disarmingly open & breezy first track which gives little indication of what is to come. Neil catches our interest with breezy pop so that he can have our full attention when he starts to scratch at sores. ‘See The Sky About The Rain’ is appropriately titled. It is foreboding; the rain clouds are coming & they stick around for the remainder of the album, lifting only in the dying verses of the final track. ‘See The Sky’ has some trite lazy rhymes, & doesn’t really hit its stride until mid song, but when it does, it is superb. The chugging organ combined with Neils’ wordless wailing & moaning is just sublime.

‘Revolution Blues’ is the crucial track on this album. A snaky, simmering, muted rock song where the repressed rage shockingly bursts to the surface. ‘I hate them worse than lepers & I’ll kill them in their cars’. Much has been made of the Manson references, but what interests me more than playing ‘spot the reference’ to those events, is the bravery & willfulness of writing a song from a murderers perspective & so soon after the events that it supposedly alludes to. Who else would have dared? Good taste has been questioned, but not in question are the quality of the song & the performance. R.B. has some of Neils’ most incisive & evocative lyrics & is a vocal tour-de-force. Every nuance & phrase is just right as he spits out the bile & indignation. Absolutely stunning.

‘For The Turnstiles’ is another perceptive, observant & wise reflection on the world around him & the concepts of fame & success. It has some lovely tight, high country harmonies & steel & banjo work. This song is brilliantly concise & its relative shortness & modesty do nothing to diminish its greatness. It is another great Neil lyric, with too many great lines to pick just one. Closing side one is ‘Vampire Blues’, the weakest track on the album. The song deals with pressing themes such as ecological exploitation & capitalist greed, but despite the noble intent & its function in the overall sweep of the album, it is not particularly interesting melodically & is a little too vague & plodding for mine. The vocal is a good one, with some humourous moments & the organ stabs work well, but it struggles to hold me after the two sinewy, toned performances directly before it. Strangely though, for a song with this title & theme, it is light relief before side two!

Australian radio host Richard Kingsmill said in 1996 that the title track was the song his brother feels is the archetypal Neil Young song. His brother is probably right. It has a downtrodden plod, a melancholy, fatalistic tone & with lines like ‘the world is turning, I hope it don’t turn away’ and ‘all my pictures all falling, from the wall where I placed them yesterday’ it is pure Neil Young. He is the eternally blue boy whispering & moaning his woes into our souls where they resonate with our own. His voice slips up the register in the choruses & back down for the verses & it works a treat. I love the lazy bongos & the slow dripping guitar solo is supremely tasteful & oozes feeling.

‘Motion Pictures’ is so subdued it is almost as if Neil is turning his head away from us briefly & whispering to his ex-wife before once again resuming his focus on the listener in the next song. It is a hushed contemplation of & kiss-off to their failed relationship. There is some tasteful steel work again & this track continues the melancholic, reflective tone. It is subtly melodic, but has the hard task of sitting between the two sprawling & endlessly quotable epics sitting either side of it. Ultimately it is somewhat swamped. Which brings us to ‘Ambulance Blues’.

Attempts by Neil thus far in his career to end his albums with a supreme epic had failed in large measure. Think ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’ & ‘Last Dance’. Here though, the best is saved until last & this is probably rightly felt to be the greatest, most deeply textured & ponderable lyric of his career. A twisting acoustic, lyrical journey over ten minutes, it is Neils’ own ‘Desolation Row’ or ‘Tangled Up In Blue’. The lyrics are so loaded with vivid imagery & emotion that you could write a whole essay unravelling it. ‘Oh mother goose, she’s on the skids’. That line is perversely both hilarious & sad in equal measure. I love that line. It is a sort of ‘things ain’t cooking, in my kitchen’ moment; an unexpected savagely melancholy turn that has great effect when it hits. ‘An ambulance can only go so fast’; He realizes that sometimes even the best & most rapid help still takes time to arrive and sometimes it takes too long. Like Dylan’s ‘Tangled’, it drags us through several places, times & characters & conjures a complicated web of moments & moods & points of focus. To complete the picture, a weaving, weeping violin tracing beautiful lines around the weary vocal.

'Ambulance Blues' holds interest despite its mammoth length & by the end Neil seems to be at relative ease with his world & with himself again. He seems to have been able to shake off his souls disquiet & sadness. There seems to be resolution with the 'hook & ladder' critics who had dogged him in recent times, offering to 'get together for some scenes'. He also rejects all the damaging rock star ego bullshit that many of his contemporaries had been engulfed by, realizing 'there ain’t nothing like a friend, who can tell you’re just pissing in the wind'. ‘On The Beach’ is always in my top 3 Neil albums at any given time, probably just edged out by 'Tonight’s The Night’ as his all time greatest album. It argues a great case for him on every level of his craft; as lyricist, social observer, singer, guitarist, composer; and there are few weak links. It is a cohesive & truly great album.

‘Tonight’s The Night’ (1975)
[archive review from 2005]

Recorded before ‘On The Beach’ but released after, messing up train spotters analysis of his artistic evolution at the time no doubt, this is THE great Neil Young album. It needs to be judged by different criteria than his other albums because of the context in which it was recorded & its intentions. On many other Neil Young albums, sloppiness & out of tune-ness would be far less forgiveable, and this album is guilty of both on a regular basis, but it is a triumph of pure gut feeling, emotion & inspired, brilliant spontaneity over & above style & polish.

The title track is by turns seductive & bone chilling. Neil eases us into the song with the enticing but somehow unsettling promise ‘Tonight’s The Night’ over & over before his voice cracks into the sorry tale. So much has been said about this song, & said very well, I don’t want to say much more except that it is a superb song & performance & it truly is ‘as real as the day is long’. ‘Speakin’ Out’, it just occurs to me, is something of a dark twist on a mid 70’s Beach Boys song off, say, ‘Beach Boys Love You’. Monolithic banging rhythm piano with lyrics like 'I went to the movies, the other night, the plot was groovy, it was out of sight, I sat with my popcorn, out looking for good times’. But it’s a twisted take on one & the chorus goes somewhere else entirely, but the start does sound like a mid 70’s overweight & zombified Brian Wilson banging out a warped nursery rhyme. This actually predates ‘Love You’ by four years though. But I digress. This has a great expressive & pained vocal & some sweet stoned piano tinkling & steel.

‘World On A String’ is a stomping dismissal of rotten old fame & fortune. The musicians all sing different lines on the refrain. A very early (maybe even first) take; they hadn’t properly worked out (or were too out of it to notice or care) which line went where & wrongly anticipated which line Neil would sing. It is hilarious & it epitomizes the rough & ready spontaneity of the album. ‘Borrowed Tune’ is singular & incredibly intimate; you can feel the ‘ice frozen six feet deep’ & the loneliness & emotional isolation. The sparse piano/ vocal arrangement let’s no frills or excessive instrumentation get in the way of the bleak & uncomfortable emotions. ‘Come On Baby’ is a frenzied, drug-addled rock out recorded live in 1970, with Danny Whitten on guitar & lead vocals. It is an inspired inclusion, brilliantly reminding us of what was lost & of the lifestyle that inevitably led to the loss. The topic, lyrics & performance are all perfect in a functional sense as well as the song being strong in its own right.

‘Mellow My Mind’ is an extremely whacked out country dirge & it is brave & brilliant that Neil didn’t attempt to fix his most strained & out of tune vocal ever ‘lonesome whistle on the railroad track, ain’t got nothing on those feelings’. Wow! ‘Roll Another Number’ continues the stoned, whacked out rambling, but to me is the weakest track. It’s a bit too much of more of the same & the melody doesn’t really grab. 'Albuquerque’ on the other hand is extremely evocative. I feel like I’m on a lost highway at night when I hear it: completely alone & desperately depressed with no idea where I’m going, nowhere to go & no one to care. It has a subtly beautiful melody & has some pained steel work. An under appreciated gem.

On ‘New Mama’, the sun bursts through the black clouds, but it is broken & brief. This one makes me teary sometimes. It is so fragile & beautiful & at times innocent sounding, but the lyrics reveal a wisdom & a sad knowing that can only come from experience & understanding of the ‘other’, the opposite of what he is talking about; what he has come from & gone through in recent times. The playing & harmonies are supremely tight & focused in this, making this song something of an oddity on the album, but not at all out of place. It gives the album balance & relief. ‘Lookout Joe’ is a fascinating, fuzzy, rumbling rock song. It has cryptic, Polaroid snapshot lyrics & a wonderful sludgy abandon in the performance & sound. The bridge lifts into a twisted gospel prayer & Neils’ lead guitar stabs gloriously falling back down from it. Another big favourite, this would make any Neil ‘best of’ that I had a hand in.

‘Tired Eyes’ I took an initial dislike to, probably because it seemed too rambling & too far removed from my frame of reference. It did not deserve my dislike though. It is crucial to the album. At this point Neil is so weary & so far gone, he doesn’t even bother to sing or maybe can’t sing anymore. He speaks the verses deadpan & seems to have no emotional reaction to the events of the song. He only lifts into song in the choruses with his whacked out band supporting him in fractured, uneven harmony. He sounds devoid of feeling & emotionally barren. The album ends with another version of ‘Tonight’s’; more rambling & wobbly than the first.

This album seems to have been a tribute offering to his friends lost & a catharsis for Neil so that he could move on for his own well-being & for those he loved & for those who loved him. After hearing it, you cannot doubt that he needed desperately the release of making this album. The album is also a warning; Neil put himself through a lot of pain & torment, in the manner of a method actor, to capture the feeling & (un)reality of the darker aspects of the music world & perhaps to warn others of its danger. Neil might just as well have slit his wrists into the boiling vinyl wax, for it is that brutal a journey. Nakedly emotional & unflinchingly honest, ‘Tonight’s The Night’ is a gift & a lesson to humanity.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this review. I am a recent Neil Young fan. I started with "Harvest" when I bought a turntable and bought my first vinyl in almost 20 yrs. Now I'm working my way through the doom trilogy. I haven't listened to "Time Fades Away" yet. But, my absolute favorite so far is "On the Beach".