Reflections on aging, on the need to address environmental concerns and to recall that love matters.
It is often the case with Neil Young’s recent new material releases that the thoughts on first contact are not the ones that remain after longer association. Often there are songs that take time to bed in, that seem slight or underdeveloped on first listen but which reveal greater depth as the nuance of lyric or accompaniment become apparent. In this sense ‘Barn‘ is a very typical Neil Young 21st century release. Re-united again with Crazy Horse – which now means Nils Lofgren, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot. Several songs demonstrate that this is a horse that can still kick-hard, but with Lofgren on-board there’s also the unexpected such as the opener ‘Song of the Seasons‘ on which accordion is a major element. It’s a song that sets the tone for roughly half of the album – considerations of time-passing, still looking to the future and still celebrating life and love. The other half of the album leans to Young’s political side with swipes at the backward looking and the poisoners of the American Dream.
‘Heading West‘ is a childhood recollection – Neil Young wandering around his hometown before his parents split-up and family life changed. And if you think that’s ballad territory then you couldn’t be more wrong – this is the explosive guitar and belting drums that mark out the Horse at their rocking out finest. Life changed, Young notes, but “mommy got me my first guitar” shows that something good came from the disruption. This balance of good and bad reappears in ‘Canerican‘ where Neil Young acknowledges his Canadian roots alongside his pride in being an American casting his vote “and now I got my man“. Just as importantly are the changes in the country, in the population, in ways of thinking “I am all colours, all colours is what I am / I stand beside my brother / For Freedom in this land.” Those who see things differently find themselves parodied on ‘Change Ain’t Never Gonna‘ – a jarring mix of pumping harmonica and bar-room piano that see-saws like the logic of men who want to keep their gas guzzling vehicles as a sign of their freedom, but will kill the farmer that would enable that wish simply “for growing / that bad yellow fuel with the economy slowing.” The Horse kicking-off frames the other song of environmental concern ‘Human Race‘ which scorches like Young’s scathing questioning: “Who’s gonna tell / the children of destiny / that we didn’t try / to save the world for them?” leaving no doubts that the time for talking has actually expired and the time for doing….well, maybe that’s too late too.
So where’s the love? ‘Tumblin’ Thru the Years‘ is as tender as any song that should have been earmarked for CSNY – love as contentment that grows as the years pass, growing richer within the gentle bonds of friendship. And album closer ‘Don’t Forget to Love‘ is akin to the dreamy softness of the ‘Harvest Moon‘ album – although, naturally, rougher around the edges. It’s a plea for both personal love and for a greater positive engagement with the wider world, it’s Young at his most optimistic. The song that will probably linger longest from the album is ‘They Might Be Lost‘ which ostensibly is about someone waiting for something to be picked up and trucked out – but the truck is late. Waiting on the porch turns to musings on the “old days,” and wondering if they were good or not “the jury is out on the old days you know / The judgement is comin’ down soon” and it may not be favourable because “the weather is changing, you know.” Everything is vague, everything is changeable and the world maybe isn’t the way you thought it was.
Placing this album within the pantheon of Neil Young albums is always going to be a tricky thing – and we’re talking that simplistic number score here – it’s a good album, it should please those of his listeners who have stayed the course and are still willing to embrace new releases. Sometimes it’s Young and Crazy Horse thrashing out the song, finding it’s direction, voices falling off microphone, the occasional late arriving lyric – half recalled or newly thought of it’s hard to tell. For a first time Neil Young listener – well of course you wouldn’t start here. For that hypothetical neophyte one would still probably pull out ‘Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere‘ or ‘After the Goldrush‘. And yet – this is vital music, alive and pulsing and sure ramshackle as well – the cover image of a creaking old barn is hard to shake off, but it’s still standing. And if sarcasm and a continuing commitment to inclusivity and condemnation of those unwilling to change are worth anything then ‘Barn‘ more than justifies its existence. And if an acceptance of aging and a determination to embrace a world of love are worth anything then ‘Barn‘ more than justifies its existence on that count too.