Thursday, May 6, 2010

Long May You Run (as a member of the Stills-Young Band)

For reasons I can't quite articulate, Long May You Run has been the most difficult album so far for me to hash out. I'm looking over the track list as I type this, and I enjoy nearly all the songs on the album. Yet when I try to rank it up against the other albums I've gone through for Journey Through the Past, I feel less enthusiastic about it. Let's try to break down why this might be.

First, the good. On paper, it's a no-brainer that I should enjoy the Stills-Young Band. Take CSNY, give it a hard shake so the weaker links fall off. Neil and Stephen Stills, both around the heights of their careers at this point, compliment each other in an interesting way. They share a similar rock-n-roll-with-eclectic-influences aesthetic, but Stills is all professionalism, smooth vocals and guitar chops, and Neil is a ragged, screaming madman who sounds like he's beating his guitar to death (comparatively). Although at times it does sound like two solo albums shuffled together, Stills adds a little polish to Neil's sound, and Neil adds a little soul to Stills's. I especially like the way their voices sound together when one sings backup for the other, it's a compelling combination of sweet and sour.

On the downside, and I don't want to place the blame on Stills, the album as a whole is a little too glossy and slickly produced, smoothing over too many of Neil's rough edges. As is to be expected, I like Neil's songs more than Stills's (he is simply the better songwriter, in my opinion), but there's not enough of his eccentricities and idiosyncrasies on Long May You Run. It's some of Neil's most sleek, commercial material ever... which means you get a lot of strong, catchy, hummable melodies (especially "Midnight on the Bay" and "Ocean Girl"), but the lyrics are often generic, feel-good nonsense ("In the jungle land/With the sea and the sand/Can I meet you there?/We'll be drinking bananas/From long tall glasses/In the open air." What is this, a fucking late-80's Beach Boys song?), and the songs don't stick with you for long. It's like Chinese food: delicious, but you're hungry again a half hour later.

That may be the main problem with the album, which has made me reluctant to rate it: it's frequently good but almost never great. Even a relatively bad Neil Young album tends to have flashes of genius, but those moments are largely absent here. The major exception is the title track, an ode to a broken down car that manages to be both hilarious and oddly poignant (sample lyrics: "It was back in Blind River in 1962/When I last saw you alive/But we missed that shift/On the long decline.") If it's not an all-time classic, it at least brushes up against greatness.

So how do I rate this one? I would say most of the songs are in the B/B+ range, but some of the aesthetic choices rub me wrong, and it never seems as unique or essential as Neil Young's best music. It kind of seems like it could have just as easily been a Fleetwood Mac album, or any other random group from that era. Where does that leave us?

Rating: B-

(My apologies to Stephen Stills for barely even paying his half of the album lip service. All of his songs here are good. I especially like "Black Coral," although "Make Love To You" puts an image in my mind I would have been happier without.)

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