Monday, June 28, 2010

Are You Passionate?

The closest comparison to Are You Passionate? in Neil Young's discography is This Note's For You, an album I don't particularly care for. Recorded with Booker T. & the M.G.'s as his backup band (except for one song, "Goin' Home," done with Crazy Horse), Passionate is as foolhardy a mixture of styles (in this case, soul and R&B mixed with Neil's signature rock 'n roll sound) as Note, and yet there is a charm in tone and strength of songwriting on this album that makes the experiment work.

Neil has at this point fully embraced his status as a senior citizen, writing wistful songs about family, love, and regrets... but done with more warmth and energy than on Silver & Gold. He has not one, but two songs that touch on his daughter growing up and moving out: opening track "You're My Girl," a bright and corny song about saying goodbye, and the heavier, less specfically focused, and more poignant "Differently," where Neil attempts to put a positive but bittersweet spin on the changes in his life ("When I'm away I call you up/And you don't seem to miss me that much/But I know our love is still there in your heart/Just differently"). The passage of time is an important theme in general on the album, like when he talks about "New buildings going up/Old buildings coming down" on "When I Hold You In My Arms." Another excellent track is "Mr. Disappointment," a serio-comic song where Neil personifies and confronts his regrets, apparently singing in different voices for himself and the titular character (on the chorus he answers "I'd like to shake your hand, Disappointment" with "Hey, how ya doin'?" on the backing vocals).

One of the nicest things about Are You Passionate? is that it's one of the more focused and crafted of his rock albums he had recorded in a good long while. The Crazy Horse albums of the 90's could feel unstructured and self-indulgent, stretching songs out to interminable length and featuring aimless, repetitive guitar solos. The songs on Passionate aren't short, per se, but find a nice groove, stick mainly to a solid sound (warm soul with a rock edge, heavy on backing vocals), and have strong, clear melodies with memorable lyrics. Even Neil's guitar playing is markedly different; frequently melodic and performed-as-written (as opposed to improvised), rarely used for the noodling and exploration that is typical of his style.

At the time, I believe the album was best known for it's one hard rock-ish cut, "Let's Roll," an earnest 9/11 tribute about the passengers on flight 93. I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. The main riff is catchy but repetitive. I respect that the song mainly shies away from rah-rah jingoist bullshit, and admit that it has a certain emotional impact... but I wonder if, not unlike Paul Greengrass's film United 93, the emotional impact is truly earned and not simply a by-product of my strong feelings about the actual event.

The worst parts of the album are when Neil's style clashes a little too much with the material. The biggest and most obvious complaint is song length. The songwriting itself seems more clean and straightforward than anything Neil had done in a while, so I'm not sure why he lets so many tracks float past the 5 or 6-minute mark, when 3 or 4 minutes probably would have sufficed. Especially in some cases when the song cycles back to the same guitar melody 2 or 3 times and repeats a chorus ad naseum; it can put a (slight) damper on otherwise excellent music. The exception is the closing track, "She's a Healer," a 9-minute jam that's the grooviest thing on the album, and which I significantly under-rated when the album originally came out 8 years ago.

My complaints are minor, really. If we do the math, of Are You Passionate?'s 11 tracks, 4 or 5 are excellent, another 3 or so are pretty good, and the rest, if mediocre, are passable. It's soul elements make it stand out (in a good way) from the rest of his discography while still sounding inescapably Neil, and it has some of his finest crafted tunes and most disciplined performances in a non-folk album since Freedom.

Rating: B +

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