An ability to disregard the weight of the past and restlessly seek new ground is to be...
Chris Jones 2003
The initial warning signs are on a sticker on the front of the CD. ''One of the most ambitious works of his career.'' ''Young has rarely sounded so fresh and inspired''. Yes folks, once more as in the 80s, Neil's record company are a little nervous and feel the need to sell him to us. Why? Well, since 1996's wonderful soundtrack for Deadman old Neil's been giving us nothing but lacklustre albums, and the wait for a great Young album has reached similar proportions to Dylan's dry spell during the 90s. Greendale has already split critics and fans. But, when faced with a concept album about the Green Family living in the little Californian coastal town of Greendale, which is knee-deep in clumsy metaphor and half-baked truisms, the only message can be caveat emptor...
Young is an unreformed hippy, but one whose individualism borders on Republicanism (he claimed to be a Reagan supporter in the 80s). This story seems to revolve around ecological issues, the rights of smalltown Americans and the fact that California is full of Woodstock-era folks who are now grandparents. Something we can all relate to, then. Touring it in Europe he gave audiences the whole thing in one dour acoustic chunk. Fans back home get a full-blown theatrical presentation. Lucky them.
This opus comes with a wealth of supporting ephemera (DVD; unfeasibly large CD booklet with drawings by hokey Zuma-era artist James Mazzeo; labyrinthine website with maps, lyrics, narration and even falsified photos for goodness' sake). Unfortunately it's a smokescreen. When you strip away all the merchandising you're faced with a series of desultory, lengthy two-chord strums with nary a tune between them. Crazy Horse, shorn of rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro, do what they always do: Solidly plod through the material. Yet, where once this served as a bedrock for Neil's stellar guitar wrangling and impassioned voice, it now merely highlights his inability to set fire to the fuse. Despite the bullhorns and grungy harp it's barroom rock that should have stayed in the bar.
Ok, so it's not as bad as last year's Are You Passionate? There's a fire in Young's delivery that speaks of some kind of bitter railing against a world that's forgotten simpler joys; but this sure isn't the way to make us care. By the last track, the interminable ''Be The Rain'', you detest the saccharine backing vocals of the 'Mountainettes' (wife Pegi and others), have stopped caring about any of the loosely-sketched characters and you've realised that all the hard work in trying to discover what he's on about is never going to help. Only the lonely acoustic ''Bandit'' with its rattling bottom string, whispered delivery and lovely chorus really stirs the listener.
An ability to disregard the weight of the past and restlessly seek new ground is to be applauded. This is a brave move, but then so was Trans, and that was pretty terrible too. What really rankles with Young is his contradictory stoner's logic to such projects. While taunting his fans with his cornucopia-like Archive box set of rarities (now in its fifteenth year of postponement, folks) he feels the need to rant to us about vague issues, like a plaid-wearing Dennis Hopper. Along with Dylan his genius and importance are assured; at least to his fans. Yet one can't help wondering why, like Dylan, he couldn't have simply shut up for a decade while he found something interesting to say.