Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tonight's The Night

As much of a mood piece as it is a rock album, Tonight's the Night is a raw, ragged hangover of a record, an expression of grief for the dearly departed (Specifically, the drug related deaths of Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry. And, perhaps, more generally for the loss of innocence of Neil's generation, the end of the hippie era). Recorded in 1973, but shelved by the record label until 1975 because they felt (rightly) that it was not a suitable commercial follow-up to Harvest, Tonight's the Night is the most perfect fusion of content and form in Neil's entire career. A series of boozy-sounding rockers ruminating on drugs and death, the songs are performed in a deliberately roughshod and off-kilter manner. Neil and his backup band often sound slightly out of sync, out of time, or off key. The guitar work is soulful but sloppy. Neil voice strains for notes he can't hit. Sometimes he just speaks the verses, as if he's too worn out to sing.

The result is an album of unbelievable emotional power, one whose broken down sound matches its broken down emotions. I could see how someone might listen to this album and think it sounded like a bad performance; it sorta sounds like last call at Hell's grungiest dive bar. But the roughness is a purposeful aesthetic choice. There is a moment in the chorus of"Mellow My Mind" where Neil flat out can not hit the notes in the song, and his voice pathetically cracks, that is one of the most painfully beautiful things I have heard in my life. The album is even somewhat self-referential about it: "Borrowed Tune" is literally what its title suggests, as Neil steals the melody from "Lady Jane" and croons "I'm singin' this borrowed tune/I took from the Rolling Stones/Alone in this empty room/Too wasted to write my own."

I'm making this album sound like a chore, but it's not. It's rough and a little difficult, but it's still a great rock album of genuine pleasures. Neil's and Nils Lofgren's solos on "Speakin' Out" might be the most awesome in all of Neil's discography. The album has a certain bar band verve to it that gives the album an ass-kicking drive, even when the material is depressing. Or "New Mama," for instance, is such a beautiful song, that even if its message is a downer (I've never been sure) it redeems its own sadness.

Still, in the strung-out, melancholy world of Tonight's the Night, even a relatively playful song, like the ode-to-drunk-driving "Roll Another Number (For the Road)," comes with loaded lyrics ("I'm not going back to Woodstock for a while/Though I long to hear that lonesome hippie smile/I'm a million miles away"). And its a bitter irony indeed that the album's one honest-to-goodness fun song is a live recording from 1970 of "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown"... written and sung by the late Danny Whitten.

Rating: A +, Neil's masterpiece.

1 comment:

Shenan said...

"New Mama's got a sun in her eyes
No clouds are in my changin' skies
Each morning when I wake up to rise
I'm livin' in a dream land.

Changing times,
ancient reasons,
that turn to lies
Throw them all away
Head in hand,
Gift of wonders to understand
And open all the way."

I think undeniably it's one of the few parts where some sort of sun shines through the misery.