Monday, June 4, 2012

Americana, by Neil Young & Crazy Horse

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Nostalgia is an erratic conglomerate of emotion, and at its worst a dangerous one. At its core, it supposes that some point in the past was fixed, constant, and true -- that, for a while at least, the past flew by less transiently and confusingly than the modern world. We might know that the past was as varied and as subjective and as nuanced as our present, but we don't like to feel that way.

Take the American folk music tradition, just as a crazy random example. If I threw out any Stephen Foster-esque song title, like "Oh Susannah" or "Clementine" or "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain," to a room full of Statesmen, they'd all be able to join in and sing the same melody and all the same words (for the first verse) as if the song were permanent and petrified like wood. They'd feel like part of a tradition -- and they wouldn't be wrong, even if the bean-eating tent-throwing wagon-driving cowboys in their collective imagination didn't match the real historical precedent. They'd be subject to a powerful dose of national nostalgia, part of a long and broad musical heritage, even if said heritage has failed to pass down all the lyrics and any of the meaning of its most popular songs. (It's also largely failed to pass down the idea of these songs as mutable and malleable. I seriously doubt every 19th century American with a guitar or a harmonica played those songs sans improvisation or alteration.)

Perhaps our modern sensibilities (no judgment here -- every time period has its own sensibilities) don't particularly allow us to receive our American musical heritage. Neil Young has said of the songs on Americana that they are all tunes we've known since kindergarten, and I just don't think that's true anymore. For one, music in general and singing in particular factor ever more minutely into our public education (despite the fact that, as I learned in my college German classes, music and singing can be incredible teaching tools). If we're not being taught the lyrics to "Clementine," how should we know that despite its jaunty tune, it's a wonderfully tragic song? (And how should we know that "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" is at all political or apocalyptic when it sounds like someone's aunt is coming for a weekend visit, probably with gifts?)

I had my first ritual listen-through of Americana last night, with my partner by my side. She speculated that, aside from not teaching us the songs in the first place, our modern sensibilities don't particularly allow us to juxtapose melody with meaning -- that is, are our minds on guard for this dissonance between lyrics and music? The composer of "Clementine" must have wanted to contrast the story of a girl's death with a whistle-able tune. Could we even wrap our heads around that today? Could we, as a nation of nostalgic first-verse singers, comprehend the significance of an adapted version?

The Horse wants to find out.
Americana is getting all kinds of hype -- it's officially released tomorrow, June 5, though anyone with an ear to the e-ground has heard it already. (Hey, Young has said that streaming/piracy is the new radio, which I take as a full-out endorsement of all the free streaming versions of the album available. If you like it enough to carry it around on an iPod or spin on your home turntable, you'll buy it.) Long story short, Young and Crazy Horse have taken eleven songs from different periods of America's past and reinvented them to varying degrees, mostly with electric guitars, all with percussive garage-rock attitude.

I'm one of the deepest Neil Young fans out there. So when I say this album perplexes me, that means something. (In fairness, the first internet rumblings of Le Noise had me incredibly skeptical, and now it's one of my favorite albums by anyone, ever.)

I'll be giving my CD (better sound quality than mp3, not as good as vinyl -- darn this living abroad without an awesome sound system business!) several good listenings when it arrives this week, all in an attempt to sort out the puzzlement. First impressions are that some of the songs are geniusly reinvented and will wear out my speakers:
-"Oh Susannah" sets the tone for everything this album could be -- groovin', funky, and like seeing your former babysitting subjects all grown up, a fascinating combination of familiarity and newness.
-"Jesus' Chariot" you'd know better as "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain." This song is on the warpath. It's frightening. It's doomsday with a four-piece band. It's easily my favorite track.
-"Gallow's Pole" is a great take. It's not Zeppelin's, it's not trad, and I think it more than any other track captures the dissonance between subject and sound.

At the same time, other songs are disappointing:
-I love the Horse for their ragged looseness as much as anyone, but "Tom Dula" feels just too strung out and jagged. I'm curious to hear the CD version, as I do think my low-quality streaming threw off some of the sounds. But meh.
-"This Land Is Your Land" is the song that stays truest to form, and I wish so badly that it hadn't. Maybe the band felt the often-dark album needed a pick-me-up, but this isn't it. I'm glad that the more questioning lyrics come through, but the music does nothing to challenge my brain. I wanted a rearrangement, not a cover.

Some are very rockin', very worthy of inclusion, and yet...
-"Clementine" gets dark and mournful... yet I keep imagining what it would have been like slowed down to a meandering, lamenting, "Cortez the Killer"-like tempo. I feel like the Horse was in a groove, and nothing could slow that freight train down.
-"Travel On" could have been plucked straight from the 1991 album Ragged Glory. If you liked Ragged Glory, you'll dig it... yet you can also take that to mean that it fails to break new ground.

Then there are some oddities (and I think liking oddities is a requirement of being a Neil Young fan):
-"Wayfarin' Stranger" is deep and off-kilter, like some of Young's more peculiar late-'70s material. It's also the only acoustic track, and very much worth hearing.
-"Get a Job" has to be the first grunge doo-wop cover. However much fun that sounds like to you, that's how much fun you'll have with the track.
-"God Save the Queen" is like this: Hendrix doing an anthem, minus all the flash and drugs, plus a medley with the American reclamation of the song ("My Country 'Tis of Thee") that chronicles both America's colonial past and our (light-hearted?) musical finger to the old monarchy. It also continues Young's relatively recent penchant for ending an album with a full choir. (Go back over the last decade's albums and look at the closing tracks. I'm not kidding.)

Americana is absolutely worth getting. Despite my quibbles and as-yet uncertainties, it blows most cover albums out of the water because it's so much more than a cover album. For the most part, the songs take on new meaning because of their arrangements. It advances the American folk musical heritage without being irreverent, allows the songs to speak for themselves rather than wielding them as modern-day commentary (and boy, are they still relevant or what!), and ultimately continues looking forward. That's how it avoids the worst pitfalls of nostalgia. It's a risky album, and ultimately a successful one.


  1. I know this something only the geekiest of grad-students would and could say, but it would be awesome to do a critical study of the Gothic aspects of nostalgia pervading this album. Gothic always strives for a sense of unresolved paradox. Maybe that would help account for how this album leaves the listener "suspensed" and suspended...

  2. We went to see Neil Young last night, in a solo concert. It was wonderful! He looks great, sounds great, and played all alone. Tickets were something positive. He played the organ, pump organ, piano, harmonica, electric guitar, and acoustic guitar.