I have a certain degree of respect for what Neil did with Greendale. It's the closest he's come to doing a full-on concept album; it's lyrics tell a complicated story involving the citizens of the fictional town of Greendale, in particular the Green family and what happens to them when their junkie family member Jed kills a cop. The album is ambitious and multifaceted, with Neil often switching perspectives between a wide array of characters, even trying to adopt their voices in the lyrics. The story touches on broad themes important to Neil (environmentalism, media sensationalism, corporate corruption, and American life post-9/11, to name a few) while trying to maintain a solid, emotional core that's empathetic to its characters. I've never considered Neil much of a storyteller, and while this album has plenty of problems in that department, this is likely his best attempt at it.
Thing is, there is barely a song on here that I can simply enjoy as music. The music is at the behest of the lyrics, and Neil often settles for monotonous electric-blues riffs, endlessly repeated to give him ample time to tell his story via literal, sometimes rather unlyrical lyrics. The median song length is approx. 7 1/2 minutes, yet few of the songs build, change or climax in any meaningful way, their extended lengths determined solely by the words and not by any sonic concerns. There are few memorable melodies or riffs to be found; unlike a good musical, you won't find yourself humming any of the tunes after listening to Greendale. I find this at least mildly ironic, as Neil released a film of the same title, unseen by me, that was essentially a rock opera with the album as the soundtrack (I guess with a cast lipsynching to Neil's vocals).
Returning to Greendale nearly 7 years after dismissing it, I do appreciate it, even if I don't enjoy it, more than I did back in 2003. The lyrics, although sometimes awkward and not always successful at effectively or convincingly getting into the minds of the characters, do weave a complicated tapestry of themes, plot and ideas into a story that is slightly more interesting than I initially gave it credit for. I'd even go as far to say that it is occasionally a little poignant. And its not quite the musical dead zone I once considered it (although there's still not enough going on): "Bandit," the album's only acoustic track could work on its own terms as a song, and "Double E" actually builds to a rousing conclusion, as does the album's closer "Be the Rain."
Yet those are moments I was only able to pick out after repeat listenings. What I keep coming back to is the music, and it doesn't do much to move me. The things I have learned to appreciate about Greendale are primarily intellectual and not emotional, which is not enough for me. Unlike nearly every other album I've listened to for "Journey Through the Past," I felt actively hesitant every time I was about to put this one on; I wouldn't go so far as to call that feeling dread, just the recognition that I was never in the mood to listen to it, and probably never would be.
Rating: C -