Classic Americana Albums: Neil Young “Comes a Time”

Reprise Records, 1978

There are twenty-six pages of ‘Classic Americana Albums’ you can view on the AUK website, and the section has been running for many years, and yet somehow, this is the first mention of Neil Young. His body of work is impressively large and relatively varied; narrowing it down to a single choice was tricky, but the album that stood out was immediately apparent. No, it’s not ‘Harvest‘, but the unofficial sequel.

Reprise Records released the mostly acoustic album, Young’s ninth studio album, ‘Comes a Time‘, in October 1978. It started with him recording alone in Fort Lauderdale while he restored a WN Ragland car and ended up being produced in Nashville by Tim Mulligan. The songs were written on his boat, and one song, “Oceanside Countryside“, remains unreleased. The collection of songs was offered to the record label, by Young, as solo offerings; however, Reprise requested the presence of a rhythm section, and while it has changed the sound, this is not for the worse. Legend has it he broke records (excuse the pun) with the number of test pressings made for the particular mix. Young discovered a ‘flaw’ in the album after it was released and paid out of his pocket to have the 200,000 LPs recalled. In a March 2014 interview with Rolling Stone, Young revealed that he used a vast pile of ‘Comes a Time’ records as shingles for a barn roof.

Having split with his partner and mother to his son Zeke , Carrie Snodgress, three years previously, the album is personal and tells a story of a love relationship, from the excitement of new love to the sadness of looking back. Young said of the record, “It’s funky. Not that it’s technically great, that’s for sure… There’s something there that’s me, that record.” This authenticity, the simplicity, the lyrical balladeering, and the back-to-basics acoustic guitar, banjo and pedal steel make this album a classic americana album. Even if he is Canadian and the Godfather of Grunge.

Opening the album, ‘Goin’ Back‘ sets the tone. The first line, “I feel like going back, back where there’s nowhere to stay“, is perhaps a reference to continuing the musical and lyrical themes from ‘Harvest‘. Musically he seems to be taking a break from darkness after the ‘Ditch Trilogy’ and getting catharsis before ‘Rust Never Sleeps‘ in 1979. Young is accompanied on vocals by Nicolette Larson. Larson had recorded with Commander Cody and been a backing singer for Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, who recommended her to Young. Despite being hard-won, Young said in his biography ‘Shakey‘ that this is one of his favourite records, and the song has been a staple at his yearly Farm Aid concerts.

Comes a Time‘ starts with a flurry of cajun fiddle by Rufus Thibodeaux, who played for both George Jones and Jim Reeves. The song is unique and a standout, Young offering for the little folk music details such as hand percussion and electric guitar by J.J. Cale, who would play on two other tracks. Lyrically the song is about being ready for love and life and wanting to slow down long enough to settle down “this old world keeps spinnin’ ’round, it’s a wonder, tall trees ain’t layin’ down“.

Look Out for My Love‘ is the first of two songs backed by Crazy Horse and was written four years before. It’s an incredible piece of singer-songwriting and guitar skill which is not a surprise, but it is worth noting. Just as you think the song cannot get better, Crazy Horse chimes in with close harmonies reminiscent of all of the 70s and especially CSNY. Listen out for the cheeky addition of Shakey’s fuzzy Gibson, the only hint of an electric guitar so far in the album.

Lotta Love‘ is the second song backed by his band Crazy Horse and was written two years earlier in 1976 with them. Nicolette Larson, who duets with Neil Young on this album, would go on tour with ‘Rust Never Sleeps‘ the following year and released her debut album ‘Nicolette‘ just before ‘Comes a Time‘. The lead single from her album was a soft rock version of ‘Lotta Love‘. The song has endured in the sound that emanated from The Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev some 20 years later. Lyrically, the song is a true pacifistic gem with phrases like “if you look in my direction and we don’t see eye to eye, my heart needs protection and so do I“, showcasing Young’s characteristic good nature.

If a listener was unconvinced of the Country nature of the album, Young adds Nashville legend Ben Keith on steel guitar and Rita Fey on autoharp and makes sure you are sure. ‘Peace of Mind’ is a love song and a sentimental one at that. Dueting with Larson, Young sings, “You know it takes a long, long time” over and over until the listener gets the message that love is rare and that trust is built with time. Having just married Pegi, the album’s middle tracks about the depth of love are perhaps a direct result of his happiness at home.

Human Highway‘ was written several years before the album’s release and was initially recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young in 1974, from an album project with the same name that they abandoned. Lyrically, the song is like americana bingo with mentions of “misty mountains” and dalliances with daughters; however, it still conveys the idea of feeling overwhelmed by modern society. Musically, like so many folk, country, and americana songs, despite its subject material it stays major key and positive sounding. It is a beautiful song.

Neil Young said, “One of the best tracks (IMHO) is ‘Already One’. That song still resonates strongly with me today. I wrote it about Carrie, Zeke’s mom. She was a very special person and I still see her and love her in Zeke today.” The song’s lyrics state that love lives on in the (human) life you create together. “But we’re already one, Already one, Now only time can come between us, ‘Cause we’re already one,  Our little son won’t let us forget.” It is a powerful song on which JJ Cale plays guitar.

After the power and depth of ‘Already One‘, the next song’s levity and cheer are a welcome change in tack. Another staple of Neil Young’s Farm Aid concerts, this song is replete with tongue-in-cheek lyrics and imagery. It is a song about moving on and finding new projects, people, and love. There is uncertainty but also hope. It includes the line “in the field of opportunity it is plowing time again“, which is outrageously naughty. Of course, the whole song is packed with farming references, and he sings of “seeds of sadness”, waiting for springtime, and cultivation. It could sit alongside the great English rural folk songs if it only mentioned a corn dolly.

Added in the studio in Nashville towards the end, Motorcycle Mama’ is a standout roadhouse blues number. It is almost too different from the other songs on the album in that its lyrics are throw-away and about being ready for some casual entanglement with the titular character. However, thematically it fits perfectly in that rebounds and fun are part of the moving on process after a long relationship. The album is improved for its addition in that it celebrates fun, dancing, and good times, which is a widespread country theme not-so-incidentally.

Written by fellow Canadians Ian and Sylvia in 1961, ‘Four Strong Winds’ has become a touchstone for Canucks missing their maple leaves. A song lyrically about returning to Alberta is the perfect ending to this album, charting love’s journey; a love road trip, if you will. The song is tinged with sadness, “we’ve been through this a hundred times or more, four winds that blow lonely“, but also resilience “All those things that don’t change, come what may. If the good times are all gone, then I’m bound for moving on“. Neil Young arguably has brought the song to the broadest audience through its inclusion on the album. Having already been covered by country folk artists Marianne Faithful, Bob Dylan, The Carter Family, Glen Cambell & Joan Baez, and Waylon Jennings, it would go on to be covered by John Denver, Bobby Bare, Sarah McLachlan and even Johnny Cash.

Neil Young, in his archive, said, “From my perspective, ‘Comes a Time’ is one of the most heartfelt and soulsearching records I have ever made“. In my personal opinion, this is one of the roots of americana music and one of the many reasons this is a ‘Classic Americana Album’.

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