I said a few posts back that Trans was Neil's most 80's-est solo album, but I lied. That (dubious?) distinction belongs to Landing On Water, an album that seems at least partially inspired by the synth-heavy new wave of the time. I referred to Trans as "what 1981 Neil Young thought 2001 would sound like." This one is more like what 1986 Neil thought 1983 sounded like. Gone are the sci-fi elements and vocodor vocals of Trans, but the album is similarly dense with synthesizers (including the ubiquitous synth slap-bass), and has plenty of other 80's signifiers as well: extensive overproduction such that every note is tracked, cleaned up, and processed within an inch of its life; some vague rumblings about the social issues of the time ("People On the Street"); a choir of children singing some of the more dramatic choruses ("Violent Side" and "Touch the Night"). Shit, Neil even name drops Max Headroom in one song. Neil's sensibility is definitely present, but the production and style of the album sounds not so much like his customary folk rock, and more like Tears for Fears' The Hurting.
See, I like Tears For Fears though. God damn it, this wasn't the way this was supposed to go. I wasn't supposed to like this one. I was already mentally writing the post in my head. I was going to point to Landing On Water as the definitive example of a failed Neil Young experimentation, an exploration of 80's recording techniques and perhaps a misguided attempt at sounding current. I'd then go on to praise him for trying new things but conclude that the final result just doesn't work. But then I went and listened to the damn thing and realized that, yup, as has been the leitmotif of "Journey Through the Past," I actually liked it more than I realized.
I don't know, guys. I recognize that the glossy production smooths over some of Neil's rough edges that would best remain rough, and drains away some of the jangly energy of his performance. I know it all sounds a little cheesy and dated. But unlike with Old Ways, I don't think the genre Neil is operating in this time strips his voice from him, and I think he acquits himself well.
And there's a sort of purposefulness to his sound as well. The album is lyrically dark, often focusing on personal woes, societal woes, and the transition into a newer, bleaker era. Neil sings about having to "control your violent side," says that "They all try to help me/but I can't see the light" on the ominously titled "I've Got a Problem," and tells the listener "Don't tell me hard luck stories/And I won't tell you mine." Most pointedly, he seems to directly criticize CSNY on "Hippie Dream," referencing "Wooden Ships" in the chorus ("But the wooden ships/Were just a hippie dream/Capsized in excess/If you know what I mean"). The synths not only add a vaguely Depeche Mode-ian gloomy atmosphere, but represent a deliberate break with his past, the death of the "hippie dream."
I swear, I'm trying to be critical. But I'm also not going to be unduly hard on something just for the sake of variety. It's not a great album, but I like Landing On Water. It's sonically experimental, lyrically provocative and reasonably well-crafted. And yes, I do enjoy the novelty of hearing Neil embrace his inner Prince and track on a bunch of synthesized bass.
Rating: B -