Leave it to Neil Young to throw us yet another curve ball this late in his career. By now, most Neil Young fans have long since become accustomed to those occasionally odd artistic whims Young has been known to chase from time to time, in his ever-stubborn pursuit of the muse.
But even judged against such legendarily off-kilter recordings as Trans and This Note’s For You, Neil Young’s new album Storytone comes across as one of the stranger, more unexpected bumps along that twisted road. Much like those infamous genre experiments, the problem here isn’t so much with the songs, but rather with the arrangements – at least on the symphonic versions which take up one of the two discs here.
Although it has the most memorable musical hook of these ten new songs, the environmental call-to-arms “Who’s Gonna’ Stand Up” is weighted down by an overuse of syrupy sounding strings that overwhelm what is otherwise one of Neil’s catchiest chorus lines this side of “Rockin’ In The Free World.”
Despite some heavy-handed – and occasionally clunky – lyrical wordplay (“End fracking now, save the water, and build a life for our sons and daughters”), the stripped down version which appears on the solo disc works far better.
But the blistering, curiously unreleased Crazy Horse take that tore down the house nightly in Europe earlier this year, is far superior to either.
The bluesier outings “I Want To Drive My Car” and “Say Hello To Chicago” – besides feeling oddly out of place on this album – likewise fall somewhat flat, and here again, it’s largely due to the arrangements.
In the case of the latter, the best point of reference would be the sort of horn driven, big band bluster you’d expect to find in a dance routine from a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical.
“I Want To Drive My Car” works slightly better, with a feel that recalls the Blue Notes. But the most curious thing about these two songs – other than the fact that they stand out like a sore thumb on this album – is the use of Waddy Wachtel on lead guitar. Wachtel is of course a fine guitarist in his own right, but a little shredding from Neil could’ve taken these songs to another level.
What saves Storytone however, are the two songs which close the record.
“When I Watch You Sleeping” is one of those beautiful, pastoral sounding love songs that Neil Young seems to literally pull out of thin air every now and then. It is also one of the few places on the symphonic side of this album, where the string arrangement simply augments the song with touches of color, rather than threatens to swallow it outright. “All Those Dreams” likewise lays off the classical gas, closing the album with a song reminiscent of the warmest sounding jewels found on Harvest Moon and Prairie Wind.
There is some discomfort in getting to these two gems though, and if you read between the lines, perhaps a bit too much information regarding the present status of Neil Young’s love life. If I were Pegi Young, I certainly wouldn’t want to be reminded of “the glimmer of everything I once saw in you” that Neil is apparently viewing from his rear view mirror these days, and as a fan I probably didn’t need to know that his current squeeze is nicknamed “Tumbleweed.”
But Neil continues to do as Neil does, and God bless him for it. We don’t always have to like it, but more often than not, we seem to eventually come around. For the record, solo Storytone tops symphonic Storytone by a hair.
But the latter does have its moments.