Friday, May 21, 2010

Landing On Water

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 -


Patrick said...

I've been enjoying the detailed descriptions of why you like these albums. Reading you intelligently go over what works has been more educational then a different approach would have been. I have to admit your enthusiasm has rubbed off and it's made me seek out a few songs from albums I didn't already have.
If it makes you feel any better there is probably someone on the internet right now snarkily blogging through Jim Croce's discography and hating every ironic minute of it.

Dan said...

Thanks Patrick! I'm glad somebody besides myself and my girlfriend is getting something out of this.

Back when I started this, another commenter suggested doing a similar walkthrough Warren Zevon's discography. That might be a fun project for the future (and a great excuse to fill in the last few gaps in my collection), although I need some time off after this project to, you know, listen to all my other music that I've been neglecting.

Anyways, my point being that perhaps if I do that, you could provide some guest commentary?

Patrick said...

I'd love too. I'm pretty sure I have everything by him except "Transverse City" and "Learning to Flinch".
I find him similar to how you find Neil Young in that there are pockets in his career considered to be weaker that really aren't so bad when you take a second listen to his work.

Dan said...

I actually have both of those albums. If we see you this summer I will gladly make you copies, or I could always send them to you.

I don't have Mutineer, Mr Bad Example and maybe one or two others than I'm forgetting, so I can't speak for those, but I agree that he has several underrated albums. He's almost never written a bad song in his career; the weaker material is only "bad" in relation to how great his best stuff is.

Shenan said...

To be fair, Dan, your girlfriend is getting something out of this because she legitimately likes Neil Young, not just because she likes you :)

But I would eagerly await a similar Warren Z. undertaking from the two of you!