The Worst Of Neil Young

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First Posted: 12/2/2014

Neil Young has made some of the best music of the past half century. From his peak in the ’70s, when you only need one hand to count the songs not worth owning, all the way to 2012’s “Psychedelic Pill,” he has remained a vital creative force for longer than the average Russian’s post-pubescent life. But consistent he is not. Just because you love one Neil Young album is no guarantee that you’ll be able to stand listening to the next. And I’m having a hard time imagining a single person who would love his new album, the recently released “Storytone.” Neil Young’s greatest moments fall in one of two modes—either acoustic, country-leaning folk songs, or searching electric guitar workouts. But that’s not to say he hasn’t tried different approaches over the years. Boy, has he. Young has dabbled in everything from yacht rock, to electro-pop, to feedback-based sound collage. Most of these discursions have been critically panned, but there’s a lot of gold among the rocks. “Storytone,” though, contains no lost classics, and I’m ready to call it the worst thing Young’s ever put out. The high-concept pitch for “Storytone” is that it’s Neil Young’s orchestral album, a throwback to the days of Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole. Not unprecedented in Young’s musical world, it’s an idea that builds off of two tracks from 1972’s “Harvest” album that were among the most contentious things he ever released. This is a concept that should give even the most ardent Neil Young apologists pause. If at the peak of his creative powers Young wasn’t able to hit an orchestral recording out of the park, what do you think round two is going to sound like?

If you’re getting a whiff of an off-key crooning disaster dressed up in Hallmark strings, you’ve got the right idea. Sensitive songs like “Plastic Flowers,” “Glimmer,” and “Tumbleweed” come off like a bad joke. Young’s aged voice just can’t handle fronting an orchestra, and the mix is terrible. It’s an aging babyboomer nightmare—the end of “Mr. Holland’s Opus” in hell.

Worse still is the environmental anthem, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” If political chain emails were set to the tackiest music possible by Andrew Lloyd Webber, this is what it would sound like.

And Young has a surprise up his sleeve. A terrible, terrible surprise. Not content with failing in one gimmicky genre, he has padded the album with three attempts at big-band blues. Big Joe Turner, this is not.

The worst of these songs, “I Want To Drive My Car” and “Say Hello To Chicago,” are the worst songs Neil Young ever released. On the former, he sings flatly, like an exhumed corpse, while the band plays rote blues changes. We expect more complexity from elementary school students. The latter has the worst guitar playing I’ve ever heard on a Neil Young album, beer commercial blues leads that lay on top of the song like the scum on top of a pond.

At his lyrical best, Young has mixed strikingly poetic images with homespun, almost blunt phrases. “Storytone” is filled with clunkers. Two examples will suffice. There’s his awful metaphor for sex with a new lady-friend in “Tumbleweed.” Young has been rather circumspect about sex in his songs through his career—he’s no Leonard Cohen, and for him to highlight it now that he’s a wrinkled, pot-bellied sexagenarian is unfortunate at best. And then there’s this couplet from “When I Watch You Sleeping:” “When I hear you purr like a kitten and a lion / And I feel your softness, how you got it without trying.” That’s right, Neil knows that both kittens AND lions purr, and couldn’t make up his mind which awful comparison he wanted to use. He should have gone with refrigerators, they purr too, and maybe then he would have come up with a less meaningless answer rhyme than that effortless softness thing. The song those terrible words come from is the closest thing to a highlight this record features. An acoustic guitar plunks away, and the orchestra largely takes a break. But if it sounds comfortable and familiar, it’s because Young’s directly copying himself. The guitar part is exactly the same on “Good To See You” off of 2000’s Silver & Gold.

When the best song on your new album is a warmed over version of a mediocre track nobody paid attention to the first time around, well, you’ve got problems not even Vanilla Ice can solve. Even “Are You Passionate?,” a previous contender for worst Neil Young album ever, featured the great “Goin’ Home,” a Crazy Horse barnburner. No such luck with “Storytone.” The only consolation is that Neil’s been recording at such a frantic clip that we can rest assured there will be a new album before too long. And look at this way: there’s no where to go but up.