Monday, May 31, 2010


The conventional wisdom on Freedom is that it represented a return to form for Neil Young, after nearly a decade of bizarre, alienating experimental albums. The album's sound was something closer to his folk and hard-rock style of yore, with a bit of variety in the songwriting, as opposed to the monolithically-focused-on-one-specific-genre style several of his 80's albums had pursued. By beginning and ending with an acoustic and an electric version of the same song (in this case "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World," Neil's classic anti-Bush Sr. anthem), Freedom seemed to deliberately recall Rust Never Sleeps, an album he similarly released near the end of a decade that signaled a creative rebirth and rejuvenation.

So that's the official story, and I think there's a lot of truth to it. But perhaps overlooked is the fact that Freedom doesn't exactly entirely turn its back on he preceding decade, instead incorporating some of the lessons learned from his experiments. Listeners don't always notice it, because the songs are built on solid, catchy, accessible folk rock foundations. You don't necessarily hear it upon first listen, but it features a dense, if subtle, layering of keyboards and sound effects on songs like "Don't Cry" that's not miles away from Life or Trans. The difference here is that they aren't foregrounded. That's not to mention the somewhat This Note's For You-esque brass section on "Someday," or an oddball cover of the 60's hit "On Broadway" that might have felt at home on Everybody's Rockin' if it wasn't quirkier and better than anything on that album.

Of course, what most folks will agree on is that Freedom features songwriting that is stronger and more consistent than any of his other 80's releases (except, arguably, Trans... although I know I'd be in the minority making that case). The best is probably "Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero, Part I)," a sprawling, 9-minute, lyric-driven jam that takes a serio-comic look at America, each verse essentially a different short story. My favorite verse follows a cop who gets fed up with all the indignities he suffers, and quits to become a drug dealer, ending with "I get paid by a ten-year-old/He says he looks up to me/There's still crime in the city/But it's good to be free."

So, yes, Freedom is, in my esteem, one of Neil's must-own classics; multiformed and adventurous yet accessible and, perhaps contradictorily, something of a throwback. From the Harvest-esque folk of "Hangin' on a Limb" and "The Ways of Love," to the Latin-flavored "Eldorado," to the off-beat hard rock of "No More," this is a diversified collection of excellent songs that rarely flags and, uh, you know... keeps on rockin'. In the free world.

Rating: A -. Sorry about that last part. I had to.

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