Saturday, April 10, 2010

Neil Young (Self-titled album)

Neil Young's first solo album is solid, if something of an inauspicious debut for someone with such a great, long, diverse career ahead of him. He's definitely thrown off the shackles of Buffalo Springfield and is starting to sound more like the Neil we know and love. He's got his first official epic, complete with lyrics about Indians and shit like that, the 9 1/2 minute "Last Trip to Tulsa." Even though he was still a young man, lyrics in songs like "Here We Are in the Years" are more wistful and have a better sense of life lived, his love songs seem less sappy, and he's got a good break-up song, "What Did You Do to My Life," to boot ("It isn't fair that I should/wake up at dawn/and not find you there.")

There are problems in the performance and production of the album, however. I'm sure I'll talk about this more in future posts, but I love Neil's voice despite the fact that he is not what you would traditionally consider a good singer. But like Bob Dylan before him and Kurt Cobain after, he knows how to write for his offbeat vocal style, and how to use his voice as a powerful expressive tool. He can kick your ass to the curb on a hard rocker, and he can wrench your soul on one of his ballads. The problem with Neil Young is that it sounds like he's holding back on a lot of the tracks; he's best when he gives it 110%, really belting that shit out, and here it's more like he's trying to be tastefully understated. It's kind of dull.

Later in his career, Neil will make some serious, often successful experiments in the production of his albums. Here, he overdoes it in a few places. The worst is "The Old Laughing Lady," which piles on shuffling drums, organs, soulful back-up singers and funky bass over what should be a stripped down acoustic song and turns it into a big mess. I never liked the song, until years later I heard a solo acoustic performance of it and realized how powerful the songwriting was. This is true of a few other songs on this album, and will actually turn into something of a trend in his career: songs improving when he reworks them for live performances.

Enough with the negative, there are still several places on the album where all these elements come together perfectly, and you get a no-shit-for-real great song like "I've Been Waiting For You," which jazzes up a haunting tune with some slick, well-layered (maybe vaguely trippy?) production. I don't spin this one as much as the classic Neil albums that were soon coming, but I've probably underrated it in the past.

Rating: C+, great things are coming soon.

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