Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Old Ways

Neil yet again zags when you think he's going to zig, this time releasing a straight-up, old-fashioned country album. Of course, Neil always had a little country in him, but the operative word there is "little." It was never his predominant style, just a flavor he threw in every now and again. There is some strong songwriting here and there on Old Ways, but what I'm getting at is that it has some serious conceptual flaws. I just don't think Neil is well suited to country music.

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!)


Shenan said...

Whoa. Halfway? So much Neil!

Just a little mid-point bit of encouragement and pep-talking: I've really been enjoying reading what you have to say about this. Even the posts on albums I haven't listened to, or haven't listened to much, it's really engaging and I always find myself learning things from your insight. Here's a far-out suggestion, but maybe not so far out: I honestly think, with some good strong editing, you could pitch this series of Neil-reviews as a book, much like books of literary criticism are published.

Dan said...

That's a sweet thing to say but

1) I don't think I'm a good enough writer.

2) These posts are all pretty brief, I'd need to go way into detail/do actual research/buy all the stuff I don't own/get all the bootlegs if I really wanted to do a book.

Shenan said...

1) You are. You just need some very thorough editing.

2) They are brief, but there are going to be like 50 of them. How long is each, in a page of Microsoft Word? I'm betting 1-2 pages. And, as a general rule, a page on MS Word is equal to 3 in a published paperback. That's easily book length.

How inclusive you are of his work is up to you. I don't think you'd have to listen to every single song that was ever recorded in any way, shape, or form (especially not all the bootlegs...this could be something that looks at all his publicly RELEASED work). But a look at his major works- and you do go a lot into things that are on the fringe of the Neilbrary- could be marketable, I think.

I'm just sayin'. Give it some thought. A girlfriend of yours has experience as a lead editor of a book that is set to be published in the next month...

Dan said...

I think most of these would be much less than a page in word.

Also, I'm not sure what the market would be for a bunch of unresearched Neil Young reviews by an amateur critic.

But again, I do appreciate your positive comments.

Also, I should read that Neil biography "Shakey" at some point. I think my dad owns a copy.

Shenan said...

Ha, take a look around and search for random words on Amazon'd be surprised what there's a market for. But that's the point of criticism- it's your opinion, it's not "researched." You have enough of a working knowledge of what was going on in Neil's life and such at the times, and of the existing framework by which most people view the periods of his career, to make your viewpoint sturdy.

Anyway, yeah! We should read that. See if you can get it from your dad.