On “Peace Trail” (Reprise), Young’s 41st studio album, the songs come off sounding like casually tossed-off random thoughts accompanied by improvised music which - in a way - they are.
Accompanied by seasoned session aces Jim Keltner on drums and bassist Paul Bushnell, Young recorded the album in four days at Rick Rubin’s Shangri La recording studio in Malibu, where Bob Dylan and The Band made their home in the mid-70s.
What’s surprising is that it took that long.
Sounding only half-engaged as he ruminates on contemporary social issues, Young offers no resolutions as the tunes chug along clunkily behind him.
Being a Neil Young fan (and I am) can be challenging and this is one of those times.
From the opening title track to the closing “My Robot,” where a synthesized voice intones “Things here have changed,” Young wants us to care as much as he does about the subjects on the album but offers no compelling reason to do that, let alone to listen a second time.
“Peace Trail” sounds like the work of someone convinced that each move they make is precious and deserving of documentation. The reality is that some of this album is embarrassing and I do not enjoy admitting that. Neil needs someone that he trusts who dares to tell him the truth: These songs aren’t good enough – keep going. He needs a proven producer with final word on the selection of material.
Over the past decade, Young has released ten albums of new material. One (“Le Noise,” from 2010) was quite good. Produced by Daniel Lanois, the record featured some strong songs and performances and a Young-sound that we hadn’t heard before.
2012’s “Psychedelic Pill” (recorded with longtime/sometime backing band Crazy Horse) also offers-up some tasty listening in places. The rest of Young’s studio output over the last decade is barely worth mentioning.
Who could or should produce Neil Young? Rick Rubin could be a great choice. Dave Grohl might be another. Whoever it might be needs to be someone he respects who dares to challenge him.
It isn’t fair to compare Young in his prime with the contemporary version. I don’t expect another “After The Gold Rush” (1970), “Harvest” (1972) or even “Ragged Glory” (1990). There’s been such an abundance of quality material recorded over the last 48 years, it’s almost asking too much to want more. But if he’s going to continue to force his label to release whatever he turns in, fair criticism is fair game.
Speaking of Neil’s label, imagine the position they’re in.
Neil signed with Reprise Records in 1968, five years after its founder, Frank Sinatra, had abdicated 80 percent ownership to Warner Bros. At the time of the sale, Frank had been adamant that rock and roll would never disgrace his baby, but relented after label president Mo Ostin persuaded him otherwise in 1964, when The Kinks were looking for an American label.
Rock put Reprise in the black for the first time.
As part of the Laurel Canyon gang that also included Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa, Neil Young signed with Reprise Records in 1968, fresh from the magnificent but underappreciated Buffalo Springfield following that group’s implosion after just three albums.
For the most part, it was a very symbiotic relationship. Reprise let Neil be Neil and he proceeded to craft the material that made him a legend.
Part of “Neil being Neil” means mixing it up and changing course when things appear too comfortable or predictable.
Young left Reprise for the upstart Geffen Records in the early 80s. His first Geffen release was the vastly misunderstood synth- and computer-oriented “Trans” (1982) followed seven months later by “Everybody’s Rockin,” a 25-minute record of cool 50s rockabilly.
Geffen filed suit against Young later in the year, claiming that the albums were “unrepresentative” of what his fans had come to expect. Neil reminded them that he had an iron-clad contract promising complete artistic freedom. Geffen apologized and allowed Neil to drift even further afield at their expense.
Young re-signed with Reprise in 1987 and they’ve had to endure plenty of stylistic detours in the intervening decades, also being legally bound to issue whatever Neil turns in.
Which brings us to “Peace Trail.”
He may be stubborn, curmudgeonly, surly, fractious and crotchety (or any related adjective) with judgment blurred by his own reputation and laurels, but I’m convinced that Neil Young still has greatness in him.
He just needs someone to tell him when his songs are not good enough.