By Mark Guarino
Don’t hunt around the house for your copy of “Chrome Dreams I” to compliment your initial listen to Neil Young’s “Chrome Dreams II” (Reprise), due in stores today. You won’t find a copy and no, it’s not because your spouse threw it out to make room in the basement or it was such a disappointment it ended up in your last garage sale.
“Chrome Dreams II” is the bookend to a phantom first volume Young never released in 1976 and since then grew to mythical stature after it was reportedly lost in a fire two years later. Collecting both new songs and discarded others, this new set is his most varied since “Freedom” (Reprise), his criminally neglected album from 1989. Like that album, “Chrome Dreams” follows no straight course, it casts a wide net so that the brief country songs sit alongside the massive and eclectic rock epics. For the casual Neil Young fan, here’s an opportunity to warm up to the conflicting passions that make him, along with Bob Dylan, one of the most restless songwriters of his generation.
The versatility is allowed due to three long-standing sidemen: pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, bassist Rick Rosas and drummer Ralph Molina. They know too well how to hang onto Young’s left turns of which on this album are plentiful. Although it starts with one of his sweetest country observations (“Beautiful Bluebird”) and a nominal folk tune (“Boxcar”), the album opens wide with “Ordinary People,” an 18-minute dirge that is neither a protest song nor a conventional narrative. Instead, Young creates a populist anthem that cheers on its protagonists as much as it eulogizes them. It is a disturbing listen, but not tedious. Recorded live, the music — from the layering of horns to Young’s strangling guitar solos that has never sounded more irate — feels like it’s being made up as it goes along. Those sparks never get tarnished and instead, transcend the recording, making it a remarkable listen with every return.
Following that, the remaining album feels like a sedate cool down. Since the invasion of Iraq, Young released music that paints his political convictions with a wide stroke but also looks inward with a dreamy, contemplative tone. “Chrome Dreams” overlaps both. The songs move several steps forward, less concerned with the headlines and more inclined to find moments of spiritual remove. Room is made for humor — the wacky “Dirty Old Man” for starters — but largely, “Chrome Dreams” is more assured than discontented. It doesn’t help that a children’s choir is hired to give the album an angelic lift, but before that, songs like “Shining Light” — a letter to God set to a waltz — are some of his most vulnerable.
That’s not to say the same for the music. “No Hidden Path” — another epic at 14 minutes — is a swim inside the dreams and doubts of the subconscious using gnarling, metallic guitars.