Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Prairie Wind

I have been loathe to provide too much context for my writeups for "Journey Through the Past," trying to evaluate the albums in a vacuum (to the extent that it's possible) and appreciate them for their own, self-contained merits. But its hard not to acknowledge that Neil had had surgery for an aneurysm around the time he recorded Prairie Wind. This fact adds a strong poignancy to what is the defining album of his reflective, nostalgic Old Man period.

Neil had been exploring the themes of childhood, memory, family and old age in several of his previous album, but his new found sense of mortality allowed him to approach them in a deeper, more touching, perhaps more philosophical manner than before. Both "Far From Home" and the title song touch on his youth in Canada, as he requests that we "bury him out on the prairie" when he's gone. Are You Passionate? had two songs about his daughter leaving home, but this album has his best: Here For You, all the more touching for its indications of Neil learning to let go ("Yes, I miss you/But I never want to hold you down"). A darker expression of letting go can be found on "Falling Off the Face of the Earth," and I think its title sums up its tone pretty well. It's hard to pick a favorite song on an album this excellent, but I might go for "It's a Dream," a beautiful and haunting ballad about the elusive nature of the past ("It's only a dream/Just a memory without anywhere to stay").

That Prairie Wind is an unabashed folkie throwback to albums like Harvest, Comes a Time and Harvest Moon is appropriate to its atmosphere of reminiscence; Neil is reflecting on his past, and on his relevance in the modern world. It shares aesthetic and thematic similarities to Silver & Gold (which can almost be seen as something of a test run for this album), but Prairie Wind's naked, honest sentimentality and stronger, sturdier songwriting place it far above. Both albums deliberately recall to his classic, popular folk rock style, but Prairie Wind can stand tall with his classics as a great album.

The only real detraction from the album is "He Was the King," a silly, stupid tribute to Elvis that stands out as a lighthearted track on an album of deeply moving material. I don't mind him throwing a little levity into the mix, but the song is inconsequential to the degree that I forgot it existed before I heard it again. Also, it doesn't help my opinion of it that it clocks in at an obscenely bloated 6 minutes. Or that, as Chuck D memorably put it, Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me.

Prairie Wind ends with "When God Made Me," perhaps the most plainly philosophical song in Neil Young's long, varied catalog. Its an attempt to tackle nothing less than the meaning of life, by pondering what his creator might have had in mind when he made him ("Was he thinking about my country/Or the color of my skin?/Was he thinking about my religion/And the way I worshiped him?"). Typically, this deep into a musician's career, i'ts not surprising if it seems like their glory days are far behind him. But here Neil is, at 60, putting out one of his personal bests.

Rating: A

1 comment:

Shenan said...

It's also almost impossible to listen to "No Wonder" in a vacuum where 9/11 hadn't happened.

I agree, this is one of my favorite albums. Possibly even top 3.

To add on (and you covered everything pretty well; there's not much you can say about something that's hauntingly beautiful except to write out some lyrics and tell someone to go listen to it), the first track, "The Painter" also touches on the looking back from the other side of the hill theme, through the story of a painter. It's interesting that he decides to tell it from a female perspective (something unusual in writing in general- more often it's females writing from a male perspective, if there's a gender switch- and even less common in songwriting), and the lines "It's long road behind me/it's a long road ahead/if you follow every dream, you might get lost" are clearly reflective of his own thoughts. I remember digging this song A LOT towards the end of freshman year of college, when those words seemed to touch on how I felt in a lot of ways (silly me, at the age of 18/19...)