It has been nine long years since Neil Young last decamped to the studio with his feted band Crazy Horse for the rocking ‘Greendale’. His subsequent musical meanderings have seen him take in the ferocious combat rock of ‘living with war’, the Crazy horse referencing ‘Chrome dremas II’ and even a solo excursion with uber-producer Daniel Lanois for the sonically challenging ‘Le noise’, not to mention a number of softer, reflective pieces that required the soft touch of the acoustic over the roaring wall of sound Crazy Horse are so fond of unleashing. Nonetheless, as soon as rumours surfaced that Young was to regroup with Crazy Horse, expectations were raised, for it was with Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro that Young has made many of his most enduring works.
What was perhaps less expected was the subject matter. Young has taken many a lyrical turn over the years; political agit-rock on ‘living with war’ or the deeply personal loss of a loved one (his father) on ‘Prairie wind’ being but two examples; but here we find Neil reconstructing traditional American folk songs via the simple, searing power of heart-felt rock and roll. Sure it’s been done before – lest we forget that doyen of the folk scene Bob Dylan has done something similar, so has Springsteen… but Neil Young? It didn’t sound positive, especially when the track listing appeared revealing that the closing number would be ‘God save the queen’. Horrifying images of Brian May sprang forth, but we should have had more faith for ‘Americana’ is a fine album that captures the untamed spirit of gems such as ‘Broken arrow’ with its raw, bar-room blues performance and Neil, in particular, sounds on fire and invigorated throughout the entire record.
Opening with ‘Oh Susannah’ the tone is set – simple, gloriously gritty rock ‘n’ roll with Neil’s signature tone to the fore, taking a set of traditional folk songs and mauling them to the death in the dusty avenues of the open desert. You may, of course, know these songs already… or at least think you do… but not like this – each one crackles with a new found energy and resonance and when you hit the dark, oblique ‘Clementine’ it’s easy to appreciate the genius of this idea. Folk tunes; kids’ songs; anthems even, are all deconstructed and reborn in Neil Young’s fiery style and, like Spinal Tap, Neil and Crazy Horse always sounded better when turned up to eleven. ‘Tom Dula’ gets a thorough going over, the backing vocals strained and buried in the mix under a wall of unwashed guitar noise whilst Neil howls the vocals in his own inimitable style of anti-singing (Neil’s closest singing relative is surely Lou Reed) before making his guitar howl in reply. For fans it is a moment of pure joy as the ravaged solos of ‘Sleeps with angels’ and ‘broken arrow’ return to the centre stage after their brief, tantalising appearance on ‘Ordinary people’ from ‘Chrome Dreams II’, and we can only hope that Neil heads out on the road to support the album sometime soon.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the album is the startling reinvention of ‘Gallows pole’, previously the subject of a godly hammering courtesy of Led Zeppelin, which here is re-crafted as a drunken barn-dance, the guitars barely holding their tune as the drums have you twirling around the dance floor in delight; almost as much, in fact, as the fifties-style rock ‘n’ roll of ‘get a job’ with its bonkers backing vocals and jazzy bass vibe. Things get yet rougher as ‘travel on’ begins with Neil singing out the melody a cappella before the band come blazing in with their amps popping and distorting, the drums a disorderly shuffle that just about keep the track on the straight and narrow, although its touch and go at points. ‘High flying bird’ oddly opens with a riff that recalls the Foo Fighters of all people, mired in ungodly distortion and o’ertopped with Neil’s stretched-beyond-breaking-point vocals. Yet, for all that this sounds like negativity, it sounds (against the odds) amazing – heartfelt, melodic, memorable and uniquely Neil – and we’re reminded once again that the principal reason for Neil’s longevity is the simple fact that he doesn’t care what anybody else thinks, he simply plays what feels right; and for all the people in the world who live for whatever homogenous, heavily marketed rubbish will be force-fed to them that week, there are also enough people out there who recognise music for the art form that it is and want to hear music that comes purely from the heart, unencumbered by auto-tune, Pepsi-sponsored ad deals and Pro-tools.
Over half way through the album and we come up on the ‘f***in’ up’ echoing ‘Jesus’ Chariot’ which takes one of the most familiar lyrics of all time and sets it to a thunderous, grungy backdrop that many Neil Young fans thought that they’d never hear the man unleash again. ‘This land is your land’ takes the pace down a notch for a mid-tempo ride through country-rock territory (complete with Stephen Stills) with only Neil’s ubiquitously snarling guitar keeping the album’s gnarly tone to hand before ‘wayfarin’ stranger’ takes a complete, acoustic-flavoured, departure for a track that’s more in keeping with ‘Prairie wind’ than ‘ragged glory’. The final, and most contentious, track is Neil’s much commented-upon ‘God Save the Queen’ which cleverly juxtaposes that most familiar of melodies with lyrics from ‘My country ‘tis of thee’ for a track that covers over 250 years of history in one cleverly arranged track that lasts barely four minutes. It’s an inspired ending to the album and one that’s bound to raise more than a couple of eyebrows, which is no doubt the intention.
Neil Young is a remarkably prolific songwriter, an icon, a genuine artist and voice of dissent whose musical output means more to more people than it is comfortable to contemplate. His musical journeys of the last decade have seen him traverse the broad spectrum of rock ‘n’ roll, inspiring and alienating in equal measure and cheerfully providing critics with all the ammunition they could ever need, only to discover that Neil is indestructible; impervious to criticism for the reason that the only person Neil ever tries to please is himself. Indeed, the very joy of a Neil Young album is in revelling in the man’s utter freedom from commercial constraints – sure you may not love everything he’s done, but you’ll be hard pressed to accuse him of treading water. Here Neil has rekindled the fire he last forged with Crazy Horse some nine years ago, and for many long-time fans it feels like a homecoming. Intelligent, deferential to the originals and yet simultaneously recasting them in its own unique style, ‘Americana’ is a brilliantly raw, passionate and exciting album that satisfies on every level – it is a sublime rock ‘n’ roll achievement and po-faced critics be damned, Neil’s rocking out with the horse again: rejoice!