This summer was a joyous time for Neil Young fans. Not only has his new release, "Greendale," hit the shelves, but four titles of Young's earlier work -- "On the Beach" (1974), "American Stars 'n Bars" (1978), "Hawks & Doves" (1980) and "reactor" (1981) -- have also been reissued. Since Young had stated several times that, due to the inferior sound quality of CDs, none of these titles would ever be issued on CD, their reappearance is that much more exciting and completely in keeping with his unpredictable personality.
Unpredictability from a major-label artist is not only a wonderful thing in this era; it's also somewhat singular. (This is to be distinguished from the predictable "unpredictability" of risible acts such as Madonna, who, according to the mainstream music press, is more laudable for reinvention of persona than the act of invention itself.) Today, style always seems victorious over substance. Into that scene continually steps Young, who is almost perversely stubborn in his insistence on staying true to his artistic vision. Even if it means releasing a record like 1982's electro-influenced "Trans," a total failure both commercially and artistically (and still out of print in the U.S.), he refuses to sway when his integrity is at stake.
Young's body of work since leaving Buffalo Springfield in 1968 is impressive in its depth, diversity and tempered prolificacy. Part of Young's strength has been his willingness to explore new musical terrain, from the blues and country-rock to rockabilly and electronic, all while preserving the kernel of substance that is uniquely and essentially "Neil." His musical excursions are those of a student; they are those of a musician; not the manipulated packaging of an avaricious oaf. The reissues and new album of the last month attest to this.
As a whole, "On the Beach" is probably the strongest and most widely appealing of the reissue suite. From the plaintive beauty of "(See the Sky) About to Rain" and "On the Beach," to the more conflicted "Ambulance Blues," "Beach" is an excellent example of his early '70s work. Blending folk and blues, Young was able to refine an idiom that many of his contemporaries spent careers searching for and falling short. Throughout the next 30 years, Young continued to tinker with his obsessions, and the rest of the reissues are a good sampling of the varied directions of his music. From the tepid Americana of "Hawks" to the crucial garage/folk of Stars and even the confounding reactor, Young has always been a rewarding, if enigmatic, artist.
In many ways a culmination of that enigma, "Greendale" is a great, if somewhat romantic achievement. But bridging the ambitious goals of a concept record (some are calling it a "rock novel") with solid and honest songwriting is something uniquely suited to Young. Reteamed with his longtime cohorts in Crazy Horse, he has created a fictional town peopled with characters that are presumably composed of bits and pieces of his personality. Though there are some narrative problems from song to song, this contributes to the primitivism Young arrives at naturally. Musically, it embodies the heavy, plodding blues-rock of "Zuma" or even "Stars 'n' Bars" with the empathy of "Beach." Needless to say, it also represents one of the more experimental moments of Young's game.
But those ready to call foul at the pomposity of a concept record should simply listen to the music first. Young and Crazy Horse are at their finest (studio) moment in years on this record, glowing with their homegrown approach and a simmering, righteous anger that only years of individualism could produce.