Neil Young’s decision to prioritize immediacy over craft in his later years means these tunes arrive lovingly weathered, but rarely go anywhere in particular.
Neil Young is standing on the porch, smoking weed, waiting for somebody else to show up. That’s the basic premise of “They Might Be Lost,” the strangest, loosest—and thus, the quintessential—song from Barn, his latest album. (Young’s discography itself is strange and loose enough that contextualizing Barn in the usual ways seems futile, but if you must know, it’s his 41st studio effort, and the 14th to feature Crazy Horse, his trustiest backing band.) Young wrote “They Might Be Lost” quickly and intuitively and didn’t give the band much time to rehearse it, a first-thought-best-thought approach that pervades Barn.
You can hear it in the three-chord progression that repeats through the song’s entirety, a rickety scaffold even by the standards of 21st-Century Neil, and in his initial contentment to let whatever’s close at hand guide his subject matter: the headlights through the trees, the call announcing that the latecomers have only just now gotten off the highway. This all may be fascinating to those of us who have spent years of our lives invested in Young’s skewed and shaggy psyche, but I wouldn’t necessarily encourage an outsider to check it out. Still, there’s a minor epiphany here, if you’re willing to follow the trail that emerges from the end of his joint: “The smoke that I burn keeps taking me to the old days/The jury’s out on the old days, you know/The judgement is soon coming down.”
“The jury’s out on the old days” is the closest thing Young offers to a thesis statement for Barn, an album that, like much of his later work, has a complicated relationship with nostalgia. “Heading West,” the warmly rousing second song, invokes “the good old days” explicitly and liberally in its remembrances of a first guitar and afternoons spent pulling a wagon through the neighborhood. “Change Ain’t Never Gonna,” addresses people who cling to an idealized history despite the desperate need for progress, imagining a “great conspiracy” to take away their freedom and “stop them from living as they’ve always been living.” Young is critical of these people, but as a guy who’s often wrapped up in his own journey through the past, he’s not entirely unsympathetic. The tonal balance reminds me of Greendale, his 2003 concept album about a young environmental activist whose radical visions drive her out of the idyllic but parochial small town where she grew up. Now, instead of assigning his conflicted views out to a cast of opinionated townspeople, he’s just saying how he feels, allowing the contradictions to speak for themselves.
Despite its elaborate narrative, or perhaps because of it, Greendale also marked a turn toward blunt simplicity over supple tunefulness in Young’s compositional approach, a sense that the urgency of the message meant more to him than the music that carried it. Over the two decades since, that turn has come to look more and more definitive. Young’s stylistic restlessness and commitment to in-the-moment rawness can sometimes overshadow the fact that at his best, he is a melodist in the realm of Carole King or Paul McCartney. But on Barn, as on many recent predecessors, the tunes meander along the most obvious routes of the chords that underpin them, rarely going anywhere in particular, and almost never taking the sorts of audacious twists that might lodge them in your heart and mind.
This doesn’t appear to be a case of Young losing his touch, but the result of a deliberate decision to prioritize immediacy over craft. “I don’t sit and play the guitar and sing the song. I might sing one verse, or think it while I’m playing, maybe humming or something. Then I write all the words out and I try to never do it again until it’s being recorded with the band,” he told Rolling Stone about “They Might Be Lost.” According to a Washington Post interview, he wrote “Human Race,” a wild-eyed rocker about climate change, while walking to the converted barn that served as Crazy Horse’s recording studio, and recorded the version that ended up on the album when he got there. Both songs gain something from the roughness of their presentation. “They Might Be Lost” has a dreamlike half-improvised quality akin to Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes, the sense of a band reaching for something without quite knowing yet what it is. The frenzy of “Human Race” suits its dire lyrics, and could have been dulled with too much time spent working out kinks. But neither seems built to last. It would be pointless to ask Young of all artists to repeat himself—just ask David Geffen about that. Still, I will humbly suggest that great songs don’t come from scrawled diatribes and afternoon daydreams alone. You have to work at them.
Great songs are not exactly what Young is after on Barn. Roughness and sprawl have been as important to his music as beauty and concision, especially when he’s working with Crazy Horse, since at least as far back as 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, his first album with the band. (Nevermind that “Cinnamon Girl” had a sugary melody to go along with its famous one-note guitar solo.) And if you have any fondness for the particular racket that these four men make when they get together—Barn is the second Crazy Horse album with on-again-off-again Neil collaborator Nils Lofgren on second guitar, after the departure of longtime member Frank Sampedro—you’ll still find plenty to like about Barn. These sound like first or second takes, with few if any overdubs, a recording style well tailored to the band’s proudly unrefined groove. It’s still a thrill when Young’s fuzz-tone guitar scorches the surfaces of drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot’s pounding rhythms, even if you’ve heard them do it a million times before. And the casual setting brings some welcome humor out of Young, like when busts out a half-yodel on the chorus of “Shape of You,” or refers to a flock of geese as “honkers flying low above the waves” on “Song of the Seasons.” Though the songs occasionally grapple with heavy subjects, the whole thing has the tenor of a backyard reunion between beloved old friends.
Young’s new songs may be blunter instruments than his older ones, but he’s lost none of his grace or delicacy as a lead guitar player. If there’s one track from Barn that deserves canonization, it’s “Welcome Back,” whose eight-minute simmer gives him plenty of space to stretch out. Between verses delivered with the hushed intensity of a beat poet, he reaches a level of expressiveness on his instrument that’s far beyond what he mustered as a songwriter for Barn, rendering thunderous drama with small handfuls of notes, using subtleties of dynamics and articulation to tell stories where words fail. “Welcome Back” is also where the album’s deliberately half-formed aesthetic comes to its greatest fruition. We can hear Neil’s bandmates attuned to his musical direction, communicating without speaking about when to step forward and when to hunker back, dreaming up the shape of the performance together in real time. There’s not much of a chorus to speak of, but the sing-spoken refrain encapsulates Barn’s complicated relationship with the past, and its use of familiar sounds in dogged pursuit of something present and new: “Welcome back, welcome back/It’s not the same.”
Buy: Rough Trade
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