Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Neil Young

  • Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [Reprise, 1969] B+
  • After the Gold Rush [Reprise, 1970] A+
  • Harvest [Reprise, 1972] B+
  • Journey Through the Past [Reprise, 1973] C+
  • Time Fades Away [Reprise, 1973] A
  • On the Beach [Reprise, 1974] A-
  • Tonight's the Night [Reprise, 1975] A
  • Zuma [Reprise, 1975] A-
  • American Stars 'n Bars [Reprise, 1977] B+
  • Comes a Time [Reprise, 1978] A
  • Decade [Reprise, 1978] A
  • Rust Never Sleeps [Reprise, 1979] A+
  • Live Rust [Reprise, 1979] A-
  • Hawks and Doves [Reprise, 1980] A-
  • Trans [Geffen, 1982] A-
  • Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks/Everybody's Rockin' [Geffen, 1983] C+
  • Old Ways [Geffen, 1985] B
  • Landing on Water [Geffen, 1986] C+
  • Eldorado [Reprise (Japan), 1989] B+
  • Freedom [Reprise, 1989] A
  • Harvest Moon [Reprise, 1992] ***
  • Lucky Thirteen [Geffen, 1993] A-
  • Unplugged [Reprise, 1993] ***
  • Mirror Ball [Reprise, 1995] *
  • Dead Man [Vapor, 1996] Dud
  • Road Rock, Vol. 1 [Reprise, 2000] B+
  • Silver and Gold [Warner Bros., 2000] C+
  • Are You Passionate? [Reprise, 2002] ***
  • Greatest Hits [Reprise, 2004]  
  • Prairie Wind [Reprise, 2005] A-
  • Living With War [Reprise, 2006] B+
  • Live at Massey Hall [Reprise, 2007] Dud
  • Chrome Dreams II [Reprise, 2007] *
  • Fork in the Road [Reprise, 2009] A-
  • International Harvesters: A Treasure [Reprise, 2011] A-
  • Peace Trail [Reprise, 2016] ***

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere [Reprise, 1969]
Young is a strange artist and I am not all the way into him yet, but this record is haunting. For someone who is into him, try to find the piece Greil Marcus wrote for Good Times (reprinted in the July 23 EVO). Best rock criticism in a while. B+

After the Gold Rush [Reprise, 1970]
While David Crosby yowls about assassinations, Young divulges darker agonies without even bothering to make them explicit. Here the gaunt pain of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere fills out a little--the voice softer, the jangling guitar muted behind a piano. Young's melodies--every one of them--are impossible to dismiss. He can write "poetic" lyrics without falling flat on his metaphor even when the subject is ecology or crumbling empire. And despite his acoustic tenor, he rocks plenty. A real rarity: pleasant and hard at the same time. A+

Harvest [Reprise, 1972]
Anticipation and mindless instant acceptance made for critical overreaction when this came out, but it stands as proof that the genteel Young has his charms, just like the sloppy one. Rhythmically it's a little wooden, and Young is guilty of self-imitation on "Alabama" and pomposity on on the unbearable London Symphony Orchestra opus "There's a World." But those two excepted, even the slightest songs here are gratifying musically, and two of them are major indeed--"The Needle and the Damage Done" and the much-maligned (by feminists as well as those critics of the London Symphony Orchestra) "A Man Needs a Maid." B+

Journey Through the Past [Reprise, 1973]
The film is as yet unreleased, which judging from the still on the cover--hooded horsemen carrying cruciform staves--is just as well. Its "soundtrack" has one virtue: eccentricity. Except for the apparently unfinished "Soldier," the standards, the Buffalo Springfield numbers, and the Young songs are familiar, but not in these versions, many of which are also apparently unfinished. Scholars will be grateful for the source material; the rest of us will settle for the 15:51 of "Words," which occupies all of side three. C+

Time Fades Away [Reprise, 1973]
This is no desperate throwaway or quickie live album. Loud and dense but never heavy, singing with riffs concocted from the simplest harmonic components, it's squarely country, yet it never hints at nouveau-rockabilly good times. The opener, "Don't Be Denied," is an anthem of encouragement to young hopefuls everywhere that doesn't shrink from laying open fame and its discontents. And the finale, "Last Dance," evokes the day-job hassles that pay for Neil Young tickets, suggests alternatively that "you can live your own life," and then climaxes in a coda comprising dozens of "no"s wailed over a repetitive back-riff. It must have been strange to watch fans boogieing slowly to this mournful epiphany. But with the Stray Gators (driven by ex-Turtle Johnny Barbata instead of ex-Dylanite Kenny Buttrey) doing as much for Young's brooding, wacked-out originality as Crazy Horse ever did, it sure is exciting to hear. A

On the Beach [Reprise, 1974]
Something in his obsessive self-examination is easy to dislike and something in his whiny thinness hard to enjoy. But even "Ambulance Blues," an eight-minute throwaway, is studded with great lines, one of which is "It's hard to know the meaning of this song." And I can hum it for you if you'd like. A-

Tonight's the Night [Reprise, 1975]
This should end any lingering doubts as to whether the real Neil Young is the desperate recluse who released two albums in the late '60s or the sweet eccentric who became a superstar shortly thereafter. Better carpentered than Time Fades Away and less cranky than On the Beach, it extends their basic weirdness into a howling facedown with heroin and death itself. It's far from metal machine music--just simple, powerful rock and roll. But there's lots of pain with the pleasure, as after all is only "natural." In Boulder, it reportedly gets angry phone calls whenever it's played on the radio. What better recommendation could you ask? A

Zuma [Reprise, 1975]
Young has violated form so convincingly over the past three years that this return may take a little getting used to. In fact, its relative neatness and control--relative to Y, not C, S, N, etc.--compromises the sprawling blockbuster cuts, "Danger Bird" and "Cortez the Killer." But the less ambitious tunes--"Pardon My Heart," say--are as pretty as the best of After the Gold Rush, yet very rough. Which is a neat trick. A-

American Stars 'n Bars [Reprise, 1977]
The first side, recently recorded, is Young's rough-and-tough version of L.A. country rock, featuring a female backup duo called the Bullets and climaxing with "Bite the Bullet," his sharpest cut since "Tonight's the Night." The second is a journey through the past that perhaps should have stayed in the outtake can. On one tune, Neil turns into a salmon while masturbating in front of the fireplace; on another, he and Crazy Horse somehow take the wind out of "Like a Hurricane," which blew everybody away at the Palladium last fall. B+

Comes a Time [Reprise, 1978]
In which the old folkie seeks out his real roots, in folkiedom. Not only is this almost always quiet, usually acoustic and drumless, and sweetened by Nicolette Larson, but it finishes off with a chestnut from the songbook of Ian and Sylvia--not just folkies, but Canadian folkies. Conceptually and musically, it's a tour de force. Occasionally you do wonder why this thirty-two-year-old hasn't learned more about Long-Term Relationships, but the spare, good-natured assurance of the singing and playing deepens the more egregious homilies and transforms good sense into wisdom. The melodies don't hurt either--Young hasn't put together so many winners since After the Gold Rush. Now that it's been done right, maybe all those other guys will hang up their Martins and enroll in bartending school. A

Decade [Reprise, 1978]
As usual with compilations by album artists, I prefer the original LPs in both theory and practice. But this triple is done with care right down to the packaging and commentary. The five previously unreleased songs range from pretty good to pretty great, the sides cohere stylistically, and I'd rather hear "Ohio," "Soldier," "Helpless," and "Long May You Run" in this context than in any other. A

Rust Never Sleeps [Reprise, 1979]
For the decade's greatest rock and roller to come out with his greatest album in 1979 is no miracle in itself--the Stones made Exile as grizzled veterans. The miracle is that Young doesn't sound much more grizzled now than he already did in 1969; he's wiser but not wearier, victor so far over the slow burnout his title warns of. The album's music, like its aura of space-age primitivism, seems familiar, but while the melodies work because they're as simple and fresh as his melodies have always been, the offhand complexity of the lyrics is unprecedented in Young's work: "Pocahantas" makes "Cortez the Killer" seem like a tract, "Sedan Delivery" turns "Tonight's the Night" on its head, and the Johnny Rotten tribute apotheosizes rock-and-roll-is-here-to-stay. Inspirational Bumper Sticker: "Welfare mothers make better lovers." A+

Live Rust [Reprise, 1979]
John Piccarella thinks this is the great Neil Young album, Greil Marcus thinks it's a waste, and they're both right. The two discs are probably more impressive cut for cut than Decade, but without offering one song Young fans don't already own. I prefer the studio versions of the acoustic stuff on side one for their intimacy and touch. But I'm sure I'll play the knockdown finale--"Like a Hurricane," "Hey Hey, My My," and "Tonight's the Night," all in their wildest (and best) recorded interpretations--whenever I want to hear Neil rock out. A-

Hawks and Doves [Reprise, 1980]
Only Neil would make a deliberately minor record about war and peace after three successive masterworks about himself. Its music fragile and sometimes partial, its length under 30 minutes despite throwaways, it divides less neatly into "dove" and "hawk" sides than the packaging advertises. Side one's haltingly lyrical "Little Wing" and shaggy head story "The Old Homestead" can be read as hippie paradigms, side two's rallying cries for old marrieds and union stalwarts as middle-American anthems. But Young's working men are from the American Federation of Musicians, and the confused "young mariner" who finishes off side one with a half-swallowed "I hope that I can kill good"; doesn't sound much like a hippie to me. So what I want to know is whether the DEW-line boys in "Comin' Apart at Every Nail" launched a missile or let one slip through. Some joke on the Pentagon either way. A-

Trans [Geffen, 1982]
Like almost everybody, I thought this was his dumbest gaffe since Journey Through the Past at first--his Devo buddies at least figured out that robots sound more lifelike if you program in some funkbeats. Granted, good old Joe Lala does add the occasional kerplunkety, but down beneath the vocodered quaver in which Young sings most of these silly sci-fi ditties they belong rhythmically to Billy Talbot, who could no more get on the one than lead a gamelan ensemble. Gradually, however, I figured out that robots also sound more lifelike if they're singing those grade-A elegiac folk melodies Young makes up when he's in the mood, because this is as tuneful as Comes a Time. Also realized that although Young's sci-fi may be simple, it's not silly--or maybe I realized that although it may be silly it's also charming. I'm sure you'll be pleased to learn that his unending search for romantic perfection is under study by an android company. A-

Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks/Everybody's Rockin' [Geffen, 1983]
If Ronnie and Nancy are the only everybodies rockin' by name on the less than rousing title finale, then maybe what Neil means to say is that basic rockabilly isn't worth too much all by its lonesome. I agree, but expect the argument would be more convincing if Neil plus Ben Keith could match Brian Setzer chop for chop. The covers are redundant or worse, as are all but two of the originals. I hope Robert Gordon or somebody rescues "Kinda Fonda Wanda." And I hope Neil realizes that for all the horrible truth of "Payola Blues," nobody's three thou's gonna get this on top forty. C+

Old Ways [Geffen, 1985]
In a pathetic attempt to convince the world he makes a difference in the record business, Warners touts this as his country move, but he doesn't and it's not. He's been making country moves ever since "Oh Lonesome Me" without once showing any flair for the literal narrative and pungent sentimentality the country audience goes for, though his modestly engaging melodies are the equal of any Music Row tunesmith's. So what you get when he's on is a catchy ditty that starts off like an utter cliché but soon jogs a little to the left lyrically, almost of its own accord. "Old Ways" are divided into bad (substance abuse) and not so bad (workaholism). "Are There Any More Real Cowboys?" hails "workin' families" who resist encroaching developers, "Bound for Glory"'s trucker abandons wife and kids for a hard-lovin' hitchhiker with new ideas and a dog. B

Landing on Water [Geffen, 1986]
Hidden away on this rock bellyflop (which must be scandalizing 'em in Nashville) are hints that he may still be a crazed genius--the hook on the otherwise more-than-predictable "Drifter," the urban neurosis of "Pressure," and especially the broken yet still encouraging "Hippie Dream." But from straightforward confessional to brand-new drummer, it's the dullest record he's ever made. C+

Eldorado [Reprise (Japan), 1989]
This is certain to become a legend on rarity alone, and if you believe mad guitar is all he's good for, you may even think it's worth a buck a minute at the $25 it cost me. I think it's versions and/or work tapes, with two otherwise unavailable songs and mad guitar that ends too soon. I'm glad to own it. But I get reimbursed. B+

Freedom [Reprise, 1989]
For years it seemed pointless to wait till he found his bearings--his bearings in relation to what? Maybe he still had terrific albums in him, but history had passed him by--his saving eccentricity was no longer an effective weapon against the industrialization of pop, which had to be ignored altogether or taken to the mat. So apropos of nothing he comes up with a classic Neil Young album, deploying not only the folk ditties and rock galumph that made him famous, but the Nashvillisms and horn charts that made him infamous. In addition to sad male chauvinist love songs, it features a bunch of good stuff about a subject almost no rocker white or black has done much with--crack, which seems to have awakened his eccentric conscience (though I bet a Yalie as opposed to cowboy president helped). Does this terrific album mean he's found his bearings? I doubt it. But I no longer put it past him. A

Harvest Moon [Reprise, 1992]
mean length of Harvest track not counting six-minute opus: 3:14; mean length of Harvest Moon track not counting 10-minute opus: 4:37 ("Old King," "Harvest Moon") ***

Lucky Thirteen [Geffen, 1993]
As David Geffen himself would concur, though perhaps not in a legal brief, Neil's non-Reprise period was a mess even for him--Reagan, techno, horn sections, rockabilly takeoffs. But despite the arrangements and the unavoidably jarring segues, just about every one of these 13 selections therefrom (only four available in this precise form, only two totally unfamiliar) is a Good Song. And this is all we have a right to ask--except that Trans be reissued as a CD. A-

Unplugged [Reprise, 1993]
folkie and proud, he's earned one of these things if anyone has ("World on a String," "Like a Hurricane") ***

Mirror Ball [Reprise, 1995]
baby he was born to lumber--and Pearl Jam wasn't ("Downtown") *

Dead Man [Vapor, 1996] Dud

Road Rock, Vol. 1 [Reprise, 2000]
Only one of the six 1969-1978 oldies that dominate this contract-conscious holding action is on any previous live album--"Tonight's the Night," which admittedly had more get-up-and-go on Weld in 1990. The two new titles are a girl-group hoot too good for Silver and Gold and a bitter, climactic, Chrissie Hynde-enhanced "All Along the Watchtower." The Keith-Oldham-Dunn-Keltner band rocks different than Crazy Horse. Definitely not dead yet. B+

Silver and Gold [Warner Bros., 2000]
Previously, Young's bad records have always had the mark of weirdness on them--impossible songs, twisted politics, stupid clothes. These 10 well-culled copyrights, two from the '80s and only four from 2000, are something new and ominous, because they're dull. They smell of equine methane: the old-fart hegemony that fuels alt-country, AC radio, and literary anthologies canonizing Ry Cooder, Ernie K-Doe, and Spooner Oldham. So though Duck Dunn and Jim Keltner get more beats going than Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina ever will, their mild funk is just another species of roots politesse, and Neil's self-indulgently halting vocals open the dismaying possibility that he takes Will Oldham seriously. True love isn't this boring, Young must know that. Hell, the Buffalo Springfield weren't this boring either. But they are now. C+

Are You Passionate? [Reprise, 2002]
Booker T. as first refuge of a patriot ("Differently," "You're My Girl") ***

Greatest Hits [Reprise, 2004]
This flunks any reasonable redundancy test big-time--almost everything on it is from an album worth owning. Note, however. that 11 of the 16 tracks are 1971 or earlier, and also that there isn't a second that doesn't fit beautifully, "Heart of Gold" and "Harvest Moon" included. At the very least, an excellent conversion tool. [Recyclables]  

Prairie Wind [Reprise, 2005]
Where long ago Harvest's heavy orchestrations and dead beats groaned with significance, even the horn parts here are strictly utilitarian, meant to deliver the words as efficiently as possible. What makes the words different isn't that Young almost died, although that got his attention, but that they're devoid of fancy. Meditations on mortality and the passage of time are a trope that will wear out faster than road stories and fame plaints as more rockers visit the critical list. But few will make as much of unmistakable, one-dimensional language as this chronic obscurantist. "If you follow every dream you might get lost." "Yes I miss you/But I never want to hold you down/You might say/I'm here for you." "Silently it waits for me/Or someone else I suppose/This old guitar." For once he makes sure he's understood--a matter in which melodies that might otherwise seem overfamiliar are of great service. A-

Living With War [Reprise, 2006]
OK, more news event than musical milestone. But a really great news event--believe me, the '60s never produced an album that felt this much like a peace march. The key is the sense of fellowship, with music carried less by the artist's broad guitar and creaky voice than by loud drums, what-the? horn arrangements, and a hundred-person chorus on every song. The second consecutive Neil Young album where you know what all the words mean (following 50-odd where you didn't) specifies that this radical-of-the-moment is not averse to supporting a repentant Colin Powell. This proves him a populist if anything does. B+

Live at Massey Hall [Reprise, 2007] Dud

Chrome Dreams II [Reprise, 2007]
His last song collection this dubious was, of all things, This Note's for You, which is where this one's chief selling point was long ago slated to appear ("Ordinary People," "The Way"). *

Fork in the Road [Reprise, 2009]
Young's green-car protest album tops his impeach-the-president protest album because he knows more about cars than he does about presidents. In fact, he loves the gas guzzlers of yore so much that he went into the business. His goal: a "heavy metal Continental" that gets 100 mpg on "domestic green fuel." Young's music has never run as smooth as his automobiles, and his Volume Dealers chug along like the reliable transportation they are. But putting his tunes and falsetto into overdrive, he's so into his subject he turns it over 10 different ways. Here be truckers and traffic jams, heroic mechanics and failed bailouts, "the awesome power of electricity" and "cough up the bucks," hoods to get under and worlds to collide. Young sees beyond the "old"--a word that comes up a lot--on-the-road utopianism. But there's not a hint of mea culpa in the guy, or guilt trip either. "Just singing a song won't change the world," he knows that. But songs are his job, and his reserves are apparently inexhaustible. A-

International Harvesters: A Treasure [Reprise, 2011]
Two remakes from Old Ways, two from Re-ac-tor, one from Harvest, and one from Buffalo Springfield, plus six more or less "new" songs, all recorded a quarter century ago. Reads like the profit-taking vault dig it is. What it sounds like, however, is the redemption of Young's lost mid-'80s--the countryish album Old Ways was supposed to be, neither rote like Re-ac-tor nor static like that sacred cow Harvest. Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, and Tim Drummond know Nashville but can play whatever, in this case a loping rock bent and flavored by Rufus Thibodeaux's Cajun fiddle. You bet Young knew how thematic the superb "Nothing Is Perfect" was when he stuck it just before the farewell "Grey Riders," a spooky signal that deep down he was the same nut he'd always been. A-

Peace Trail [Reprise, 2016]
Anything but "predictable," these political ditties rank among the strangest songs of his career, as in "Hope that was confusing, looking like a bright light/Blinding you forever with its power" ("My Pledge," "Glass Accident") ***

See Also