Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Neil Young - Comes a Time

Following 1977's half-finished country experiment American Stars 'n Bars (which, I neglected to mention in the last post, has a fantastic cover), Neil Young released Decade, a ten-year (duh) career overview complete with rare tracks and inscrutable liner notes. The three-record set is often credited as an early example of the rarity-filled box sets that would become de rigueur in the CD era, but at the time it would have simply been viewed as a particularly generous greatest hits package. And when does an artist trot out the greatest hits?

Let's look for a moment at Young's past several years. Following the big commercial breakthrough (Harvest) he released three defiantly anti-commercial albums that established him as a Serious Artist. Then, he re-grouped his favourite backing band for a crowd-pleaser (Zuma); re-connected with the other creative force from his first band (Stephen Stills) for a lackluster reunion album of sorts, and padded out an unfinished album with studio leftovers. Given that lead-up, a greatest hits album might have seemed like an admission of defeat: my best years are behind me, let's take a look back.

With that context in mind, is 1978's Comes a Time a triumphant return to form or the first late-period album by a mature artist past his prime? Both, and neither, sort of.

From a commercial standpoint Comes a Time can be viewed as the long-awaited follow-up to Harvest: a mostly acoustic folk-based album of easy soft-rock. From an artistic standpoint, it's in the same vein as Zuma: a strong album employing a previously-explored style; solid, but nothing new.

It's neither because the details don't fit either paradigm. The liner notes credit no fewer than nineteen studio musicians, more than Young had ever employed on a single album by a long shot. The arrangements are occasionally frustrating, and Young seems to be challenging the listener as subtly as possible with sudden stops and other odd rhythmic shifts.

The album opens with a theme played several times over before the song actually starts, and the song pauses several times to repeat it. "Look Out For My Love" pauses after the first chorus for Young to announce his emotional vulnerability as nakedly as possible. "Peace Of Mind" is a love ballad with an achingly beautiful melody, but again the arrangement refuses to let the listener settle into a steady rhythm. Side two opens with "Human Highway" (the title of Young's strange, long-unreleased narrative film), which seems to revisit "Walk On"'s theme of burying the hatchet. Even on this one, the tempo in the chorus continuously shifts from half-time to double-time, refusing to grant the listener an easy tune.

They're all good songs, but none are great, which made it difficult to pick songs for this post; nothing jumps out as a great lost classic. If anything, that's a testament to the overall cohesion of the songs: you can't just cherry-pick the hits here; it's an album. In a larger sense, the album can't be fully appreciated without an understanding of this point in Young's career. Staring in the face of obsolescence, he created an unabashedly commercial album while still challenging the listener. It's not one of his best from a pure musical standpoint, but it's a triumph nonetheless.

We're past the reach of Decade now, but Greatest Hits includes the title track. The album also contains "Lotta Love", a cover version of which became the defining hit of backing vocalist Nicolette Larson's career. I suppose I could have posted that. But instead, here's a version by Dinosaur Jr. from the tribute album The Bridge. As should be obvious from listening to his work, Dinosaur frontman J. Mascis is one of Young's biggest fans. And so, given the opportunity to pay tribute to his hero, he chose one of Young's most inoffensive MOR hits and urinated all over it. Enjoy!

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Look Out For My Love", "Peace Of Mind" and "Human Highway"

Bonus (not from vinyl): Dinosaur Jr. ft. Artie "Are You Ready" Sinatra - "Lotta Love"

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