Saturday, May 1, 2010

On The Beach

This whole "Journey Through the Past" project was inspired by On the Beach. Released before, but recorded after Tonight's the Night, On the Beach is the third installment of the so-called "Ditch Trilogy," the darkest period in Neil Young's career. It is held by some as a masterpiece on par with Tonight's the Night. By all accounts, I should love this album, yet I listened to it 4 or 5 times in college, dismissed it as a boring mediocrity, and hadn't listened to it since. If you asked me just a month or so ago to rate it, I would have probably given it a "C-." But it caught my eye recently while flipping through my iTunes, and I wondered if maybe I gave it another listen, all these years later, I'd have a new found appreciation for it. And, presto change-o, the idea for this whole project came to me.

Going back to the album, I can understand why I originally wrote it off. It does not contain much of what you would consider craftsmanship in the song writing. Although the first two tracks (the surprisingly kinda upbeat "Walk On," and "See the Sky About to Rain," a song Neil had been kicking around live for a while) are tightly structured pop songs, but the rest of the album stretches out into weirdness. Most of the songs pick a tone, stick with it, and drone on for a while, not really peaking or climaxing or moving much in one way or another. The lyrics are often strange and meandering, enigmatic, more like on Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited than on a typical Neil Young album. No offense to Dylan, but I want Neil to sound like Neil, not like someone else.

Yet, what I never realized before is that, in its best moments, On the Beach captures the same sort of beautiful melancholy that defined the Ditch Trilogy. It's far more polished than either Time Fades Away or Tonight's the Night, but reaches for the same dark emotions, albeit in a more mellow fashion. The offbeat, rambling lyrics work surprisingly well, at least as weirdness, as in the apparently Charles Manson inspired "Revolution Blues" ("I hear that Laurel Canyon/Is full of famous stars/But I hate them worse than lepers/And I'll kill them in their cars"). The album's greatest achievements are its two longest songs, which both find delicate grooves and let them play out. "Ambulance Blues" is a strange, stream-of-conscious run through the dark themes Neil had been exploring on these albums, and it has an almost humorous self-awareness about itself and the album's seeming lack of direction ("It's hard to say the meaning of this song," Neil admits during one verse). And the title song is haunting, with Neil addressing his depression and his lack of comfortableness with his fame head-on ("I need a crowd of people/But I can't face them day to day/Though my problems are meaningless/That don't make them go away." That's some dark shit.). It's got some killer guitar solos, too.

Okay, I know I said I wasn't going to tell anecdotes, but I had to pass this one along. According to Wikipedia, Neil and the other musicians ingested large quantities of "honey slides," a concoction of weed and honey, during the recording of the album. Even if that's bullshit, it's a pretty good description for how the album sounds.

I don't love On the Beach and don't think it holds up to other great albums he released in this era. There are a few too many duds on it ("For the Turnstiles" and "Vampire Blues" don't do much for me, and I greatly prefer the earlier, live, solo version of "See the Sky About to Rain"). But I'm glad I went back to it. I appreciated it far more now that I did 4 or 5 years ago. There are moments of transcendent, but painful, beauty that helps it rise above some of its shortcomings.

Rating: B -

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