Monday, October 22, 2007

Neil Young - Hawks & Doves

Today we officially begin Neil Young's difficult years. Fittingly, it's the start of the 80s. Not that he got weird right at the start of the decade; he released a couple of mediocre albums to run out his Reprise contract before his notorious Geffen years. We're also at a point between the reach of the major compilations, so nothing from the next couple of albums turns up anywhere else.

Young didn't miss a beat chronologically, releasing Hawks & Doves in late 1980, same year as Live Rust. But some of the songs date from several years earlier, which gives side one an inconsistent feel.

Hawks is yet another one of those Young albums with a clear delineation between the two sides. Here, side one is filled with quiet, personal songs, opening with two older songs: the barely-there ballad "Little Wing" and the seven-minute "The Old Homestead", the lyrics for which include parts for multiple characters. The album's finest song is at the end of the side, a haunting solo acoustic number entitled "Captain Kennedy". The lyrics tell a vague and troubling tale in a similar vein as "Powderfinger", while the music showcases Young's fingerpicking skills. One of his best songs of the era, but nothing else on the record matches it.

Side two brings out the band, first for a schmaltzy country number entitled "Stayin' Power", then for a series of patriotic blue collar workin' man anthems. "Union Man" is the weirdest of the bunch. It starts out espousing pride in organised labour before the song turns into a dramatised union meeting chaired by Young. A member proposes that everyone be issued bumper stickers that say "Live music is better". The members approve, the motion is passed, the song is lame.

"Comin' Apart At Every Nail" is a decent working-man's lament about struggling to get by. It's not great, I'm just posting it to include something from side two, and it's fairly representative of the overall sound. It's no "Livin' On a Prayer", though, and that's saying something.

The side closes with the album's title track, notable for the repeated chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A." in the chorus. In this day and age, it's hard not to be cynical about overt displays of patriotism, but Young is still an Old Left liberal here; it would be a few years before he would begin publicly praising noted union-buster Ronald Reagan. Still, there's just something awkward and forced about the tone of all of the songs. Maybe it's because he's Canadian.

The music doesn't do much to buoy the bland songwriting. Young's guitar playing is noticeably different than it's been before, with a much cleaner sound than his previous electric work, but most of it gets buried under backing vocals and fiddles. Considering the high quality of Young's previous pair of new albums, Hawks can only be seen as a major disappointment.

Buy it... on vinyl.

From my deck to you: Neil Young - "Captain Kennedy" and "Comin' Apart At Every Nail"

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