By Mark Guarino
Neil Young has grown old gracefully, if you haven’t noticed. In his famous song conversation with the titled “Old Man,” he made an observation not many brash young rock musicians are liable to make in their early twenties: “I’m a lot like you.” That set the scene for a life-long career with one eye focused on the graying years and examining the wisdom, the tragedy and constant questions it brings.
Although the song’s narrator says he was 24 with “so much more,” Young was really 26 when that song first appeared on his breakthrough album, “Harvest” (Reprise), in 1972. When Young and his reunited cohorts in Crosby, Stills and Nash presented the song last weekend at the United Center, the tables looked turned. They were ones looking like the old men (Young is now 54) and the song’s most telling line now had added weight. The four repeated “I’m a lot like you,” slowing it down considerably. The weary and dry humor of the moment was not unnoticed.
Young’s new album, “Silver & Gold” (Reprise) — in stores Tuesday — returns to old age yet again. It’s an acoustic album, his first since 1992’s “Harvest Moon” (Reprise), itself a pared-down revisiting of the original “Harvest.”
Old age is not exactly the stuff that keeps the kids clamoring at the cash registers. Only baby boomers, if anyone, bought the recent CSNY reunion album and that’s because songs like the Stephen Stills rant, “Out of Control,” make him and his band mates sound like out-of-touch grumpy old men.
Young has avoided geezer status because his electric rock albums, with and without his backup trio Crazy Horse, have generally been more innovative. There have been excesses — a dreary synthesizer album called “Landing On Water” (Reprise) in 1986, a collection of messy guitar distortion called “Arc” in 1991, and the kabuki guitar drones all over the soundtrack to the film “Dead Man” — but even those can elicit points for rejuvenation.
Even though Nirvana’s “Nevermind” is credited as breaking bottom-heavy punk rock into the mainstream in 1992, Young and Crazy Horse did the same thing two years earlier with “Ragged Glory,” a loud howl that rightfully earned Young the nickname “the godfather of grunge.” (He was the first to wear flannel, too.)
As the decade wore on, Young recorded an album with Pearl Jam, toured with Sonic Youth, appeared on the H.O.R.D.E. tour with Beck and organized Bridge School benefits, inviting bands like Green Day and the Smashing Pumpkins to perform every year.
At the United Center last weekend, Young was a true little kid, never keeping still. While his CSNY band mates solemnly stood in position at their mics, Young bounced into every pocket of the stage, often playing his guitar as if strangling it.
But if were performing the whole of “Silver & Gold,” he’d surely have to sit down in one corner of a room, pull the shade all the way down and try hard not to make the floorboard squeak. That’s because this fragile album is also his quietest. Young is not singing as much as whispering. That trembling falsetto, creaky acoustic setting and harmonica playing (he often sounds as if he’s sighing, not blowing, into it), make for another batch of gentle Neil Young fare. And yes, like many of his quieter albums, the fabled old man shows up yet again on “Daddy Went Walkin’,” a plucky country jig lifted from “Froggy Went A’Courtin’.”
The “Silver & Gold” songs are ones left after he handed four off to the recent CSNY reunion album, “Looking Forward” (Reprise). Unlike his other acoustic albums, this one suffers much in the way the songs on “Looking Forward” suffer — it’s heavy with platitudes, not songs.
Young is at his stripped-down best dealing in the abstract, like on “After the Gold Rush” when he imagines Mother Nature’s “silver seed” boarding a spaceship, leaving us to our own destruction.
Not many of the metaphors have such power here — “The Great Divide” and “Horseshoe Man” are pretty-sounding, but never realize the promise of their titles. Like what we’d expect from sentimentalists like Graham Nash, Young can only offer feelgood epithets like “love don’t care if you’re black or white.”
A lot of attention will surely be given to “Buffalo Springfield Again,” a song that finds Young hearing a song from his old band on the radio and wanting “to see those guys again and give it a shot/maybe…show the world what we got.” I guess that’s a signal for that nostalgia tour to go on sale soon — especially with a Buffalo Springfield boxed set slated for stores later this year. It’s trite filler and at worst, a promo to whet appetites come fall.
If “Silver & Gold” fails as a collection of interesting Neil Young songs, much of the album can at least be heard as a meditation on finally realizing you’re older and the struggle “reconnecting thoughts and actions/fragments of our missing dream” (on “Distant Camera”). That hazy state of mind is created by the tender touches of drummer Jim Keltner, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and the forlorn voice of Emmylou Harris.
Young begins the album welcoming “good to see you again,” but at its end, he loses the falsetto for the deep, numbed voice of someone who feels “I don’t know what I’m doing.” “Without Rings” is circular, a one line repetition that Young adds words to every go-round. It’s a disturbing inner conversation of someone ending up someplace but has forgotten “about thing people do when they’re free.”
As the music goes round and round, Young leaves “Silver & Gold” with its best line: “the road we used to ride/together side by side/has flowers pushing through the dotted line.”
It’s a memory shaping before an old man’s cool, but distant eyes.