It must be said right off the bat that Zuma is a far less ambitious than his prior three records. For some, it will be a let down that this album has no greater goal than to rock out and slip in a few love songs. But for me, it's a welcome return to Neil's songwriting craftsmanship. The ditch trilogy was often rough sounding (Time Fades Away and Tonight's the Night) or had a tendency to ramble on without structure (I'm looking at you, On the Beach). Zuma is far less polished than something like Harvest, but still mainly features tightly crafted, cleanly recorded rock 'n roll tunes, suitable for mass consumption.
Overall, its an eclectic record, but less adventurous than his best work. It can rock pretty hard (epic jam "Danger Bird" seems like a return to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere guitar rock, the down and dirty "Drive Back" has one of Neil's most badass riffs ever), bust out a smooth ballad ("Pardon My Heart" and album closer "Through My Sails" are both beautiful), and still has time for some good old fashioned catchy pop tunes ("Lookin' For a Love" is agreeably bouncy, although the lyrics are awkwardly literal in places.)
On the downside, "Stupid Girl" is on the whiny and grating side of things. And "Barstool Blues" sounds so god damned much like an electric version of Bob Dylan's "Desolation Row" (only not as good) that it borders on plagiarism.
There's one reason, however, that Zuma's status as a classic album will be preserved: "Cortez the Killer," perhaps the quintessential Neil Young jam song. It's 7 1/2 minutes long, it's only 3 chords, it has several verses but no chorus, and is probably 70% guitar solo. It may be the first Neil song to really dive into his obsession with indigenous American cultures, telling the story of Hernan Cortes's conquering of the Aztecs. Of course, in Neil's version the Aztecs represent some sort of perfect state of existence, uncorrupted until Cortes's arrival; it's a little corny, but damn if the lyrics aren't evocative as all heck ("He came dancing across the water/With his galleons and guns/Looking for a new world/In that palace in the sun"). It is one of the all-time best songs with a misspelled titled not written by Prince.
Rating: B. Slight compared to his prior few albums, but agreeably (sometimes even perfectly) so.