Neil Young’s 29th album begins to describe itself, not far from its end.
“The flash of a distant camera, reconnecting thoughts and actions…Fragments of our missing dream, pieces from here and there…Fall in place along the line, disappearing between you and me…”
A Neil cutlet pieced together from several projects and propositions, once intended to be his first all-solo recording, stripped of songs drafted for the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion album, done over with some ace musicians, cut short, then restocked with overlooked older songs, Silver & Gold is still no accident.
In words, and sometimes even in soothing but never wimpy sound, this album’s ten swift, smooth numbers focus on a single, ambitious theme: reconnecting with lost moments, recapturing the texture of lost loves and missed chances, and doing it well and real enough for the effort to provide new energy. That’s quintessential Young.
For three and a half decades, Young has had a tremendous influence on the alternative country arena. For loud-twang-referencing bands of the past decade, a great slamming guitar Americana ballad such as “Powderfinger” is a starting place, a benchmark. And his slowed-down version of Don Gibson’s “Oh, Lonesome Me” on 1970′s After The Gold Rush likely marked out a route for key mope bands decades later.
But Young was a father of soft country rock too — take it or leave it. If ol’ buddy Gram Parsons brought hard country songs into the rock arena and “Boney Maronie” to the Opry, Young was a key player in bringing fluid pieces of Nashville instrumentation and harmony to the smooth end of California rock. Fans of Weld-style Neil may not reference the “Are You Ready For This Somewhat Country”-ish side of his material, but he’s as often played the role of the roughest guy in a pretty neighborhood as he has a proto-punk. The layering of oozing pedal steel guitars and dobros are part of his rock contribution, too — and these sounds are much in evidence here, via the smooth work of old mate and album co-producer Ben Keith.
The most “country” aspect of Young’s body of work may be not the sounds, but the rooted references of his ballad lyrics, presented loud or soft, and the direct simplicity he can find for delivering those tales of love and loss and struggle, personal devastation or redemption. The plain, oft-overlooked fact is that even the likes of “Down By The River”, “Cripple Creek Ferry” and “Southern Man” are built on Young’s background as a solo singer from the ’60s folk scare, way back in his Canadian days. The most blatantly country sounding cut on Silver & Gold, “Daddy Went Walkin’”, is derived from none other than the folk-bag standard “My Old Dog Blue”.
Traditional ballad forms, Stephen Foster, pure pop and folk rock mix in Young’s quieter collections: the Harvest projects, Comes A Time, and even much of the epic After The Gold Rush. That’s largely the sound here as well, with the knowing aid of such ultimate pros as Jim Keltner on percussion, Duck Dunn on bass, Spooner Oldham on keyboards, and Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris with some harmony help on “Red Sun”.
“Daddy Went Walkin’” and “Red Sun” look specifically at the broken marriage of the singer’s parents; the personal references are real enough, Young has noted, but they strive for (and attain) universality. The songs imagine the undoing of that reality (“Mama’s waiting at the top of the hill; they’ll be laughing, oh the stories they’ll tell”) and locate the events as a stop in the train of his own memory (“On the grassy hills of a railroad town…I dreamt that my mama and daddy were there”). The tone can be wistful, nostalgic; yet, miraculously, there’s no sentimentalizing. Imagining reconciliation powers these songs, makes the experience live in this moment, for singer and audience alike.
Imagination and love repeatedly recapture the silver and gold from dark times along the way. “Imagination is my best friend,” Young sings in the memorable cut “Razor Love”, since “On the road there’s no place like home.” In the bouncing “Buffalo Springfield Again”, reconciliation of a band that was too young and wild to patch it up is imagined: “Maybe now we can show the world what we got.” Not a bronzing for the rock ‘n’ roll museum, but a program for action.
In the delicate piano ballad “Horseshoe Man”, residents of the land of the brokenhearted turn to a mysterious man of magic who can “fix heartbreak everywhere.” Young shakes the heart shards and reminds them that there will always be heartbreak, because “Love is everywhere…Love’s the answer; love’s the question” — but, of course, “I don’t know about love.” These songs hook you, but they never let you off the hook. Their maker knows too much for that.
At the ripe age of 54, Young has lived with at least two countries, seven presidencies, a fistful of bands, love, debatable politics, nasty habits, indolence, electronic distortion, rejection, adulation, wealth, even working with David Crosby. And thrived. Volatile, laid back, prone to veer off in unexpected directions and circle back without warning, he has produced a body of work that marks a hundred sideroads off the same highway. Pop artists, styles, trends have come and gone in a flash; Neil rolls on one record label for decades, and remains forever…Young.
Silver & Gold, surely far from the last milestone we’ll find Young has captured and turned to a touchstone, is his first work as an unequivocally middle-aged man, mixing memory and desire. If old friend Bob Dylan’s seemingly more ambitious Time Out Of Mind finds life “not dark yet, but getting there,” it’s not Young’s style to find the glass half empty — not for very long, anyway. One song intended for this collection became instead the title cut on the CSN&Y reunion album: “Looking Forward”.
From the dark highways, Young keeps coming on back, replenished and ready for more, back with a hard-won smile and a wailing harmonica. He greets us right there at the beginning:
“I’m the suitcase in your hallway…Now at last I’m home to you…I feel like making up for lost time…Good to see you, again.”