Neil Young ‘Storytone’ – Review

19 Nov

I had to laugh at the irony of ‘Storytone’, the gazillionth Neil Young record, and the second of 2014. Here he is singing gushing love songs that make him sound young, when he’s spent most of his career singing about heartbreak and feeling older than his years. On his biggest hit ‘Heart of Gold’, aged 24, he told us ‘I’m getting old.’ Famously, he sounded tired, fed up and miserable. One critic recently noted that on ‘Storytone’ he sounds like a giddy 17 year old and many others have echoed the sentiment with some scorn, as if falling in love should be reserved for teenagers. That he should take this unexpected personal turn is simply a reflection of the contradictory nature of the man – a musical reflection is in the way he is following a no-fi collection of blues covers with an album recorded with a 90 piece orchestra. He follows the muse, whichever divergent directions it may take him in.

I take comfort from these lyrics; that even after forty years Neil Young is still as riled up and as passionate as ever. He’s still angry about the environment, he’s still falling in love and he’s still feeling emotions in the deep end. This is his grandest album to date, yet it’s at times his most intimate. He sounds fed up, optimistic, angry and delighted – sometimes in the same song. The duel nature of the record (one disc of solo versions, a second of full band versions) shines different lights on these tracks, which are either extremely intimate or extremely bombastic, depending on which disc you listen to. In other words ‘Storytone’ is a typical later-day Neil Young record; equal parts genius and ineptness. An often brilliant mess of contradictions and ironies. A record of adventure and experience, and one that is unlike any other in his back catalogue or anybody else‘s.

There are reference points throughout though. The Disney-fied strings recall ‘A Man Needs a Maid’ and ‘Such a Woman’, the melodies recall the ‘Comes a Time’ album and the genre experimentation reminds me of his soul-tribute ‘Are you passionate.‘ The orchestral sound is the record’s biggest selling point and occasionally its biggest draw back; the arrangements are sickly sweet and oversell the tenderness, but they aren’t saccharine or overly-schmaltzy – most of the time. The big band arrangements on a couple of the songs are wholly less successful, but perhaps that’s my prejudice, having never been a fan of big band music. To my ears these arrangements sound tacky and clichéd – a picture postcard version of an extinct musical form.

As I say, there is a second disc of ‘solo’ versions of these songs, most of which are better than their orchestral counterparts because they reach the point more urgently and directly. Which is to say that on the other disc there are often huge discrepancies between the band arrangements and the lyrical content. When Young expresses political anger at a lack of action over the environment, the sweeping violins extinguish the urgency of the song and actually seem counterproductive, even comical, in their expensive, inappropriately over the top melodrama. Young asks some important, but rhetorical, questions, which are allowed to linger with more weight on the solo version (even if the words seem too damp, tepid and clichéd to convey any necessary message).

‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up’ is followed by ‘I want to drive my Car’, which is as unsubtle as it sounds. I hope the irony of following a ‘mother earth’ protest anthem with a song about wanting to drive a car isn’t lost on Young. Still if there is a wink and nod, it’s lost on the full band version of the song. The bluesy, chugging, dirty Rock arrangement sounds better than the solo version of the song, which is inappropriately timid and lifeless, but it’s indulgent and celebratory in its love for a gas guzzler which seems hypocritical. ‘Who’s gonna stand up?’ Not Neil Young it seems.

The album improves dramatically as it goes along, and by the end it transforms in to a joyously enthusiastic and sentimental record. Young’s love lyrics remain as finely detailed and poignant as ever, especially on the poetic ’Glimmer’ and ’I’m Glad I Found You.’ Best of all is ’When I Watch You Sleeping’, which sounds great in both its sleepy, hush-hush acoustic version, and the soft country rock take featured on the other disc. Throughout the record’s second half Young sounds innocent and experienced at the same time, brilliantly standing guard against the dangers of loves whilst hopelessly falling victim to its spell. He’s in love with recent memories but old ones lurk in the back of his mind. He is cynical one minute, realistic the next and throws caution to the wind completely by the final track. He is a wise man overcome by happiness but aware that such happiness is fleeting. In this sense the record is unique in the company of recent albums by Young’s peers. At its best ‘Storytone’ is over and above recent releases by Mccartney, Paul Simon, Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.

You listen to those greats and you can hear their age, but listen to Young and he sounds much the same as he always did, which perhaps goes back to the idea that he’s always sounded old. His voice is croaking and straining a little more these days but it’s really not that far removed from the voice that brought us the 1970s classics. My favourite Young records have always been the ones that emphasised the voice, and by extension the lyrics, which goes some way to explaining why I prefer ‘Storytone’ to its more critically acclaimed predecessors ‘Psychadelic Pill’ and ‘Americana’. The intimate and classic ‘Live at Massey Hall’ proved that Neil Young could be captivating on his own, without any backing band. ‘Storytone’ quietly, but emphatically, re-emphasises that point, both in its strengths and its weaknesses. It also reaffirms Neil Young as a complete one off.

7/10

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