Going to ‘Greendale’: Neil Young’s latest odyssey looks at Small Town U.S.A.
By Mark Guarino
Neil Young likes to travel. He reportedly owns a fleet of antique cars plus he owns the Lionel Train company and spends time inventing gadgets for tinkering with his own ever-growing set in the barn on his home ranch.
He’s taken his furthest rides, however, in the recording studio. In his four decades of making music, Young has cemented a legacy for idiosyncratic left turns that, at age 57, have made him one of rock’s most respected veterans. Like Bob Dylan, with whom he is most comparable, Young periodically falls in and out of favor during with public taste but at no point in the past has that stunted his ambition. His hefty songbook includes full-blown excursions into country, soul, rockabilly, blues, grunge, noise, electronic experimentation and independent film. The sheer volume has left fans thrilled but his knack for the unexpected has left them baffled more than once, too.
“Greendale” (Reprise, 3 stars) is Young’s 34rd album (minus his many live albums over the years). In stores this week, it is a ten-song family saga. It is also Young’s first excursion into multi-media: an accompanying DVD film he directed is due this fall and his current tour doubles as a musical, with actors lip syncing the lyrics in scenes besides his band Crazy Horse.
The story is loose in “Greendale.” In some ways, it’s less a straightforward narrative than it is “Our Town,” with Young in the role of the Stage Manager. In its fictional coastal setting, the songs are populated by characters not too dissimilar from the loners who have appeared in his songs. There is Earl, a Vietnam veteran who makes psychedelic paintings no one buys. He has a daughter, Sun, a budding environmental activist. Grandpa, a Young stand-in, is a cantankerous rancher who has no use for the media. Things in Greendale go south once Jed, Earl’s nephew, kills a cop. The Devil, who lives in the town jail just because he likes it there, seems to have a hand in it all.
The fable is like many of Young’s songs — there are connections to be made but they are elusive. As a narrator able to read the mind of his characters, Young is free to both comment on the action and, if the case may be, himself, too. As Grandpa, he takes a good hard look at this fellow named Neil Young and asks, “seems like that guy singing this song/been doing it a long time/is there anything he knows that he ain’t said?”
The joke is, Young’s music over the years has returned to the same themes: the media is out of control, the environment is being poisoned and the youth of today are our only hope left. The same is true in “Greendale.” Its mess of stories don’t wrap with tidy conclusions other than they all seem to suggest a new kind of darkness is taking over Small Town America. Or as Young sings: “some people have taken pure bull-(expletive)/and turned it into gold” (“Leave the Driving”).
Young and the Horse are the embodiment of rock primitivism, but to record “Greendale,” Young took it a step further and gave guitarist Frank Sampedro a temporary reprieve (he switches to keyboards on the tour). Now just a trio, the band leisurely chug through the album, opening up wide spaces in the music and shifting attention to the vocals telling the story. On his classic “Cinnamon Girl,” Young famously played a wrenching one-note guitar solo that spoke volumes. Here, the aim is the same. On “Carmichael,” he slowly flirts with Raph Molina’s drum beat with as few notes as possible while switching perspective between the narrator, the dead cop’s widow, and his fellow officers lamenting his untimely death.
The songs are in servitude to the conversations, for better or for worse. Young does an sufficient job keeping all the characters separate, whether grousing from the front porch as Grandpa, whispering Earl’s paranoid inner voices or shouting environmental slogans through the megaphone as Sun. While some abandon choruses altogether, there are others that will end up in Young’s canon — the delicate acoustic “Bandit” and the urgent call-to-arms “Be the Rain.”
In the liner notes, Young writes he and the band liked the character of Grandpa so much, they all got depressed when they realized he’d have to die. Makes sense — the old coot goes out kicking and screaming at Young himself: “that guy who just keeps singing/can’t somebody shut him up?” On this cosmic and dark look at contemporary life, Young once again ups the ante for his fellow rock elders grazing in nostalgia. Like his alter ego yelling on the front porch, he’s got a lot left to say.