Monday, May 17, 2010


The 1980's were a strange time for Neil Young, an era that found Neil often abandoning his classic folk rock sound in favor of experimentation with different genres, instruments, and production techniques. These experiments would sometimes strike gold, but more often lead to inexplicable oddities that alienated much of his fan base. Trans was Neil's most extreme experimentation: an electronic album, densely layered with synthesizers and drum machines. More drastically, Neil used a vocodor on many of the songs, so that they sound sort of like they are being sung by a computer. I'm sure by my description alone, you can already tell whether Trans was a success, or a confounding anomaly.

Which is to say that you obviously have the good taste to understand that Trans is fucking awesome.

Trans is the strangest, most experimental, most oddball, goofiest, corniest, craziest, 80's-est album in Neil's long, storied catalog. It is just the god-damnest thing you've ever heard, in a good way: a bizarre combination of hard rock, electronica, and science fiction, continuing Neil's obsession with transportation from Re-ac-tor. Heard today, it sounds equal parts futuristic and retro; it was what 1981 Neil Young thought 2001 would sound like.

First and foremost, the important and overlooked thing about Trans is just how strong the songwriting is. Even without all the weird electronic trappings, I believe that most of these songs would hold up as straightforward rock songs, based on their lyrics and melodies. And actually, "Little Thing Called Love" and "Hold Onto Your Love" are pretty standard Neil love songs, and "Like an Inca" a classic Neil hard rock epic, just with more keyboards layered in. And even cooler, Neil does an electronic remake of "Mr. Soul," which has the rare distinction of being a crappy song in its original version, yet pretty awesome in the multiple reworked versions he's released. The Trans version is probably my favorite.

But even the weirder songs stand tall as pieces of pop songcraft. There's the dark, satirical, hard rock sci-fi of "Computer Age" and "We R in Control" ("We control the TV sky/We control the FBI"), or the apparently sexbot-themed oddness of the awesome, epic "Sample and Hold." There's also, I suspect, signs of something more personal. The general consensus about Trans is that, if it wasn't a major misstep, then it's an elaborate goof on electronic music. I don't think so. I've read that Neil began experimenting with the vocodor as a way of communicating with his son, who has cerebral palsy, because his son was more responsive to its sounds. I don't think its too great of a stretch to surmise that very vocodor-y "Transformer Man," a non-traditionally beautiful song, addresses this ("Transformer man/Unlock the secrets/Let us throw off the chains/That hold you down").

And of course, you can't ignore the production, which may be the most overly elaborate, absurdly atmospheric on all of Neil's albums. Its often overkill, but in the best possible sense; Neil uses his dense wall of synths to underline every emotion, and every crescendo. I think this may be what has rubbed so many people wrong; it's not just how fucking out-there this album is, but how momentous this album tries to sound in pursuit of its (modestly silly) ambitions. For those folks, this album must seem like an unprecedented disaster. But for those select few of us who dig its idiosyncratic style, Trans is something of a secret classic.

Rating: A -

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