Neil Young with Crazy Horse
By Jim DeRogatis
I'd have a hard time declining the invitation if someone really wanted me to be there tonight when Neil Young and Crazy Horse play the New World Music Theatre. Like every other card-carrying rock critic, I'm a fan. I love each and every tune on Decade, and even a bad Neil Young show is a million times more inspiring and revelatory than a "good" performance by one-name, one-hit modern-rock wonders like Bush, Sponge, Everclear, and other assorted Garbage.
But I haven't deluded myself into thinking that Neil Young is anything other than an oldies act, one of the many clogging up rock's arteries. Young has been surfing a mighty wave of mediocrity these past few years, but you'd never know from reading his album reviews. Harvest Moon (1992), Sleeps With Angels (1994), and Mirror Ball (1995) all landed among the top 20 in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop critics' poll; the latter two in the top five. Spin even named him artist of the year in 1993, a year in which he didn't release anything at all. Neil worship would seem to be such a given among critics that if you log on to Warner Brothers' Web site, in the space where the label usually quotes positive reviews of its new releases, this is what it says about Broken Arrow, Young's latest: "Critical praise? Do you even have to ask? This is Neil Young we're talkin' about here."
In fact, the critical crowd wasn't completely wowed by Broken Arrow, but neither was it particularly unkind. "No diminishment in vitality," mused Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, writing in Spin. "Tossed-off," wrote Rolling Stone's Rob O'Connor, but the mag gave Young three out of five stars anyway. "It's not as if there aren't moments of melodic splendor and epiphany," concluded Barney Hoskyns of Mojo and Request.
Such fealty can't be based solely on Young's recent output. Harvest Moon is a tepid, overly mannered, semiacoustic effort and a pale shadow of its 1972 inspiration, Harvest. Sleeps With Angels is a muddled, ill-conceived, and generally tuneless tribute to Kurt Cobain. Mirror Ball is a vain attempt to prove he's still relevant because members of Pearl Jam take his calls. And the sound track to Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, Young's first release this year, consists mostly of him detuning his guitar in front of his amplifier so that it feeds back, interspersed with snippets of dialogue from the movie and a poetry reading by Johnny Deep--er, Depp.
Critics weren't honoring these specific sounds so much as praising Young for still going. Rock's first generation of stars--your 50s heroes like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino--pretty much accepted that their best years as recording artists were behind them by the early 60s. They grudgingly slid into the role of nostalgia act, serving up their old hits in concert to folks who paid to hear those hits and not whatever lame-ass imitations they were currently writing. But baby boomers refuse to think of themselves as old--and refuse to let their idols remind them that they are. So their artists--despite variously worded promises to burn out prior to fading away--have never acknowledged the slide into mediocrity, never accepted that their later albums lacked the energy, inspiration, vitality, and pure life force of their earlier efforts.
Older, established critics and institutions like Rolling Stone have a vested interest in saying that Young's 31st album is practically as good as his first: to admit otherwise would be to admit that they might no longer be as sharp as they were when they were 20 or 30. The motive of the younger scribes is even more pathetic. Conditioned since birth to think it's all gone downhill since Woodstock, they're nostalgic for a time they never even experienced, desperately trying to prop up Camelot. The Grateful Dead was primarily a live phenomenon, and now it's over. The Rolling Stones have gotten so embarrassing that, as Bill Wyman pointed out in these pages, reviewers can't even claim that their latest effort is "the best record since Some Girls" anymore. And so it has fallen on Young to carry the torch.
But Young was lost as early as 1979, after his last inarguably great album, the punk-influenced Rust Never Sleeps. A notorious period of genre hopping followed, in which he tried to reinvent himself as a synth rocker (Re-ac-tor and Trans), Willie Nelson (Old Ways), and a bad blues bar band (This Note's for You). In 1983 Geffen, his label through much of the 80s, actually sued him for $3 million in an effort to get him to make real Neil Young records again. When he jumped ship to return to Reprise, he decided to give the people what they seemed to want. Like a photocopy of a photocopy, all of the albums since Freedom (1989) have been slightly blurry imitations of the original.
Broken Arrow is Young's first album in a dog's age without producer David Briggs, who died last year, and it doesn't have a single tune good enough to make the cut on Decade, his essential best-of anthology. The album opens with three seven-minute-plus guitar epics, and if Young took longer than that to write any of 'em, I'll eat my word processor. The titles hint at the tossed-off nature: "Loose Change." "Slip Away."
An acoustic ditty called "Music Arcade" aims for the wistfulness of "Sugar Mountain" but falls far short. (Fifty-year-old Neil pumping quarters into a video game simply isn't as touching an image as the teenage Neil sneaking cigarettes under the bleachers.) Broken Arrow is topped off with a laughably bad fake-sloppy eight-minute cover of Jimmy Reed's "Baby What You Want Me to Do," complete with crowd noise that must have been dubbed in, because it's hard to imagine anyone actually applauding it.
The final evidence that he's become hopelessly mired in nostalgia is his choice of Broken Arrow as the album title: appropriating the name of a Buffalo Springfield song practically begs us to compare this album with what has come before. As he admits in "Big Time," in his trademark plaintive whine, he's "Talkin' 'bout the enemy inside of me / Talkin' 'bout the youthful fountain...I'm still living the dream we had / For me it's not over."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Neil Young photo by Bobby Talamine-RSP.