Friday, May 21, 2010

Life (with Crazy Horse)

The final album of the Geffen Era, Life finds Neil at a strange intersection, with one foot planted in the synth driven sound of Landing on Water, and one in the old school hard rock stylings of Crazy Horse. On paper it seems like a jarring combination, but it works surprisingly well, thanks to some (relative to Neil's previous album) understated production, and good old-fashioned sturdy songwriting.

The major difference between Life and Landing On Water is that one is synth-based, and the other is synth-enriched. Most or all of the songs on Landing were very much based around the electronic contributions; the synthesizers were often the dominant instrument and contributed to the melody as well as the rhythm. Life, on the other hand, was (if I am not mistaken) recorded from live Crazy Horse rock 'n roll performances, with many of the keyboard tracks more subtly added in the studio. The synths are used, for better or for worse, to spice things up; even a mellow, almost folksy throwback tune like "Long Walk Home" has a layer of synth-horn fuzz and sound effects.

The obvious classic here is the opening track "Mideast Vacation," a moody, surreal, and hilarious parody of American jingoism, with choice lyrics like "I was Rambo in the disco/I was shooting to the beat/When they burned me in effigy/My vacation was complete." Neil must have been trying to make amends for his (perceived?) support of Reagan on Hawks & Doves, because the next two songs, "Long Walk Home" and "Around the World" are further critiques of America's foreign policy.

What's cool here is that Life is both unmistakably 80's, while still being something of a throwback. So you'll get a song like "Cryin' Eyes," which with its bass-heavy riff makes me think of The Cure, but then there's also an 8-minute song about Incas ("Inca Queen"), in case you were worried that he had abandoned that kind of shit. The Crazy Horse vibe is still present, especially on "Prisoners of Rock 'n Roll," a song whose defiant chorus ("That's why we don't want to be good!") more or less perfectly sums up the band's aesthetic and finally brings Neil's feud with David Geffen from subtext to text. Hmm, and now that I think about it, is probably a retro-active explanation for why he recorded Everybody's Rockin'.

For some reason, I really latched onto Life back in college, and considered it Neil's under-appreciated classic. I no longer think it holds up with his best work, as there a few too many weak links (for example "We Never Danced," which aims for hauntingly beautiful and lands at dull instead). But it's solid as hell, more eclectic than most Crazy Horse albums, resting nicely between his old sound and his new experiments, and also gives the first indications that his experimental phase was starting to wind down.

Rating: B

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