This world is a real mess.
Two things have hallmarked the later career of Neil Young – an incredibly high level of productivity and a legendary embracing of the ramshackle. Both of these are admirable, albeit the second has sometimes led to debates over the actual value of his releases. It often means that a particular album will have a lapse or two in the quality control, and really it’s how far that goes that decides how much an album has become a flawed work. As with his dedication to his archive releases, it is his passion for the music and for the causes that have him fired up that keeps the listener coming back – Neil has things to say and most of it is worth hearing, that’s the working assumption. On the Rick Rubin co-produced ‘World Record‘ it’s possible that with the best of intentions that enthusiastic but ramshackle quality has been overplayed. It’s tempting to blame Rubin, the master of the stripped back who maybe has taken Young’s already existing tendency to be stripped back into the realm of underdeveloped. But this is Neil Young, who by general reputation is not so easy to push around and manipulate.
First, and it is a comment on the music in itself that this seems important, what about the packaging? The gatefold cardboard double CD (one CD contains just the content of the Vinyl release) sleeve and the two inner paper sleeves have family photographs covering them – Neil’s father on the cover, an obscured Neil on the back, the paper sleeves have old photographs of his sister and his brother and the centrefold is a 1970s Neil and his mother caught in the middle of a meaningful exchange. It’s a look that’s likely to bring to mind the opening of Neil Young’s ‘A Letter Home‘ which had him trying to patch up an argument between his parents. Maybe this is an album about family? But, recall, that opening introduction to ‘A Letter Home‘ also spoke of the terrible environmental threats to our collective home, this island Earth our only safe haven in a vast Universe. And, it turns out, that is what the album is about – the environment, mixed with episodes from a life story and, not completely surprisingly, automobiles.
It’s worth recalling that Young and Crazy Horse can do polished or at least fully fleshed-out recordings if they choose to – ‘Psychedelic Pill‘ is the proof of that. Opener ‘Love Earth‘ tells us that isn’t the case this time – the message is of loving the earth back into a state of purity, the tune sounds like something cribbed from Monty Python or Neil Innes’ Rutles back to nature pastiches. Neil Young is on the piano for the stumblin’ blues of ‘Overhead‘ which sees him walking into a new future of love under clear blue skies. Piano – or pump organ – is Neil’s instrument of choice for most of the album, but ‘I Walk With You‘ opens with encouragingly apocalyptic guitar chords which calls for an end to war, but does this less persuasively than anything on, say, ‘Living With War.‘ ‘Break the Chain‘ is similarly promising with ear-splitting feedback, it has the feel of an early take with the band still feeling their way but when it too peters out a snippet of studio chat (most of the songs on the album have a few seconds of such discussions) includes the perhaps album summing comment that he’s recorded such songs a hundred and fifty times, and “that was pretty good, I made a few mistakes, I don’t know what the heck is going on today.”
Not one of the songs of environmental awareness really add anything new to the line “look at Mother Nature on the run in the nineteen seventies” from ‘After the Gold Rush.’ And whilst Neil Young is right in the extreme to keep banging that drum, to crib a line from another “they weren’t listening then, they’re not listening now, perhaps they never will.” Which is a depressing thought but it has to be asked whether this is the way to get beyond just singing to the converted – after all surely those who have stuck by Young this long are already broadly accepting of the threat of climate change or at the very least of the folly of reckless pollution and the waste of the Earth’s irreplaceable resources?
The second CD opens with ‘Chevrolet‘ which is a fifteen-minute epic with the Horse cranked all the way up. And it is glorious in its endless repetition and dedication to the cause of guitar-based jamming. Moreover the lyrics move so easily between thoughts about Young’s love of classic automobiles, his guilt about burning fossil fuels, and his vision of driving along empty curving roads away from the crowded highways which seems to hint at a world beyond fossil fuels but which is still nearly car-less despite the promise of electric power. And all this links in to a contemplation of youthful mistakes and the inability to go and fix things that one regrets doing. And all the while Crazy Horse churn on, like the worrying thoughts that persist. And like all great epic songs it really doesn’t seem to last as long as the fifteen minutes it surely is. As it finally comes to a halt Young can be heard saying “that was fun”, and goddamn it he’s right.
So, what can one conclude about ‘World Record‘? It has a similar problem to ‘Trans‘ – unless, that is, one really likes ‘Trans‘ – which, ‘Like an Inca‘ aside is basically a not very good album. In the same way ‘World Record‘ is flawed but also contains one of the best things that Neil Young has put out in years. And – just like on ‘Trans‘ – that one really good thing makes up a third of the album’s running time. ‘Chevrolet‘ is a real contender for one of the songs of the year, the kind of song that one can just get lost in – unfortunately most of the rest of the album, no matter how worthy and how correct the political message is, one could happily just lose.