This probably explains all the ringers on the album, most notably Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings providing vocals. Neil just doesn't sound very country, and I think the rigid format of the genre stifles his uniqueness. The album is overproduced and corny in places, but worse its at times generic. There's no essential Neil Young-ness to "California Sunset" or his cover of "The Wayward Wind." When he tries to be more of himself, say on the bizarre, kinda cool "Mifits," a quirky orchestral number with stream-of-conscious lyrics about outer space, Kennedy, Mohammed Ali, and see-through hookers, the result sticks out like a sore thumb. On the upside, at least he doesn't resort to irony like on Everybody's Rockin'. (Well, not too much anyway. That Jew's Harp does seem awfully conspicuous on "Get Back to the Country.")
Of course, I'm not really a fan of the genre, so I could just be an asshole here. But my understanding of the appeal of country is that the most important element is in the lyrics. Most country music I'm familiar with is heavy on storytelling. The lyrics tend to be very literal and directly appeal to the emotions. Neil, in my esteem, has rarely been good at literalism. His lyrics tend to be personal and a little obscure, and his attempts here to change his style are mixed.
Probably my favorite song on Old Ways is "Once an Angel," a pretty simple, sweet love song ("Once an angel/Always an angel/You're as close to heaven/As I'll ever be") that plays to Neil's strengths. There are definitely some clever lines spread around the album ("The economy was so bad/I had to lay myself off"); too often, though, Neil fails to connect, resulting in an overabundance of tedium. Or, I hate to say it, outright cornball sentimentality, as on "My Boy," a painfully earnest song about his son that kind of makes me want to gag every time I hear it.
To reiterate, there is some tight craftsmanship on several of the songs. There is definitely a sense of fun here, particularly in the Jennings and Nelson duets. But I have to admit that I'm not a fan of the general aesthetics of country music, and although Neil pens several memorable melodies, the genre muffles a lot of his best attributes. This is not a bad album by any means, it's pleasant and catchy, and in fact probably better all-around than I previously gave it credit for. Yet the clashing of his personal style and the conventions of country music makes it one of his less successful experiments from this era.
Rating: C +
(Side note: Unless I make some more purchases, this post officially puts me past the halfway point of "Journey Through the Past." Huzzah!)