This may be a popular choice but someone out there probably hasn’t listen to the music of Neil Young. Then again there’s also a lot of music from him even those who know him haven’t heard. Either way, I’ll keep this brief. Neil Young is awesome. Obvious writer is obvious. Although known for his introspective folk rock / singer-songwriter style, he has experimented in a variety of different genres, including new wave and country. Anyone who enjoys songwriting that’s honest and heartfelt should look no further than Neil Young. Even when some of his music isn’t great, never has it been a ploy to appeal to a popular demographic or something he didn’t believe in at the time.
Originally a member of the late sixties band Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young broke out as a solo artist with his second album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere with help from his backing band Crazy Horse, whom he would record with periodically throughout his career. A garage rock album, songs like Cinnamon Girl became fan favorites and Cowgirl in the Sand and Down by the River became known for their lengthy guitar solos and ragged production.
Young experienced his greatest solo success with the release of his third and fourth albums After the Gold Rush and Harvest. Both were mostly in the style of the singer-songwriter genre made popular at the time by artists like Carole King and James Taylor. However, it also featured the earnest introspective approach from Bob Dylan, as well as a country rock lean on Harvest. Songs talked of subjects like drug use (The Needle and the Damage Done), comparisons between current and past generations (Old Man) and slavery (Southern Man). Neil Young also had success as a member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young during this time.
After the massive success of Harvest (both the album and the single Heart of Gold went to number one), Young started to retract from his new found stardom and during this time both Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry died of a Heroin overdose. Three albums were then released between 1973 and 1975 collectively known as the Ditch or Doom Trilogy.
The first in this series is Time Passes Away, a live album from the tour after the success of Harvest. Although the tour featured mostly music from Young’s previous albums, Time Passes Away has all new songs being performed live. This album has yet to be re-released on CD or digital markets and can only be found on vinyl or bootleg.
On The Beach is the next in this trilogy and is my personal favorite from Neil Young. The album has the hopeful opening track Walk On and a remade outtake from Harvest entitled See The Sky About To Rain but the rest of the album is a mix of jangly blues and acoustic songs all with lyrics expressing depression, hopelessness and a lack of direction. The last three songs are particularly heartbreaking and chilling with the title track being my favorite song of the album.
Tonight’s The Night is the final entry in the trilogy but was recorded before On The Beach and replaced the new album Young was working on called Homegrown (which has never been released). This shows Young at his lowest and the album is extremely rough. Arrangements are extremely loose and Young’s voice looses pitch and tone and at times it cracks. It may not be for everyone but the depression theme is fully expressed here not only in the lyrics but moreso in the delivery.
With the release of Tonight’s The Night, Neil Young entered a period of normalcy for the remainder of the 70s and switched between acoustic albums like Comes a Time and rock music like Zuma which brought the return of Crazy Horse with a new guitarist. During this time, Punk was introduced and many cited Neil Young as an influence. As a result, the song Hey, Hey, My, My (Into the Black) became his first major hit since Heart of Gold. Infamously, Kurt Cobain quoted the song’s lyric “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” in his suicide note.
For the majority of the 80s, Young experimented with various types of genres. Trans was Young’s attempt at New Wave music while Everybody’s Rockin’ was a rockabilly album. During this time, record label Geffin sued Young for releasing un-commercial and uncharacteristic albums. However, at the end of the decade, he reclaimed some commercial success with 1988’s This Note’s For You, which had a video that poked fun at MTV, product placement and Michael Jackson, and Rocking in the Free World, a blazingly hard rock song that essentially criticized the decade as a whole and started his reputation as “The Godfather of Grunge.”
Since the early 90s, Young has been releasing albums on an almost yearly to bi-yearly basis with only a small respite between 1996 and 2000. He has continued to release whatever he likes including a sequel of sorts to Harvest (Harvest Moon), a collaboration with Pearl Jam (Mirror Ball), a rock opera based around environmentalism (Greendale), an album about the Iraqi War (Living with War), and a sequel to an album that was never released (Chrome Dreams II). He continues to periodically record with Crazy Horse as well. Americana, his 34th album, was released earlier this month and is a covers album of old American standards. An album of original material is expected to be released later this year.
So what makes Neil Young special? Neil Young embodies what other artist wish their fans should expect: Change. His wheelhouse may be acoustic music but he is expected to do something different with each album. This is why I wrote this as a walkthrough of his career, as an overview would do him an injustice. There’s much more music than what is shown here from Neil Young and I encourage all of you to check his stuff out.