Neil Young – Chrome Dreams II (2007)

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I love to read negative reviews of albums put out by aging rock stars. They’re predictable in a comforting sort of way. A big chunk of them say that the artist hasn’t been any good since the “blah blah” release. Of course, the time span between now and then can usually be measured in decades. Then there are the reviews that try to be efficient in their clever put-down of the musician, pointing out that the artist was never any good anyway … and now he’s fat and ugly as well!

Neil Young has always been a magnet for this sort of writing. Somewhere in the past, a rule was constructed that stated that change would not be tolerated and would be viewed with great suspicion. Thus, all of Neil’s oddball experiments have been torched as evidence of pretension, self-importance, or other related motive. This isn’t to say that Young has never made any missteps. Hey, given the size of his catalog, he probably has. What I’m getting at is that there are other ways to view a piece of music and its relationship to the rest of the artist’s catalog: and that is to see each new record a part of one long story.

Chrome Dreams II appears to be a short retelling of the entire Neil Young story, as it hits all of the high points both thematically and musically. Folk Neil, R&B Neil, Country Neil, and Rawk Neil are all represented here. Much of this is held together nicely with a theme of the journey through life. That might read like a cliché but the fact remains that the topics of love, death, inspiration, faith, and home do represent what it means to be human.

From R&B Neil, there is “Shining Light.” From Folk Neil, we have “Boxcar” and “The Believer,” and the county pieces “Ever After” and “Beautiful Bluebird.” Included in the latter genre is the closing track “The Way,” which uses The Young People’s Chorus of NYC to great (if unsettling) effect. Rawk Neil … Rawk Neil refuses to go away. “Dirty Old Man” is right out of the Reactor wheelhouse. Both “No Hidden Path” and “Spirit Road” crank up that classic Crazy Horse sound. Drums thud, bass rumbles and low, mean & distorted guitar shakes the dust out of old, abused tube amps.

And then there’s “Ordinary People.” It’s the shortest 18-minute song I’ve ever heard. It’s constructed with vignettes of the downtrodden and those doing the trodding. It’s full of blast-furnace guitar. The choruses are bolstered by a big horn section (remember, this is from the Blue Notes era). It’s loud. It’s slow. It’s over … wait, it’s not. It’s about life. People have said that this song is too long, but that’s actually its strength. It’s reminiscent of Greendale in that respect, where the long grind helps to underscore the point and crank up the emotion.

I was worried about Neil when listening to Prairie Wind, but Chrome Dreams II is much more hopeful.

Wait, is Neil allowed to be hopeful? Isn’t that a change? Pretentious bastard.

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