I put off buying Neil Young’s Greendale when it came out two months ago because I wanted to come up to speed on his past. It’s a bookish affectation on my part, I know –this tendency to view major atists as mountains to climb, start at the bottom and work your way up, earliest to latest, worst to best, best to worst, whatever formula feels right at the time. I tend to avoid artists in their latest or most popular incarnation, because they already have everyone else’s attention, and because you’re only getting the latest chaper of the story, and maybe not the best chapter. Jimmy McDonough’s bio Shakey had already made it abundantly clear that I’ve either forgotten a lot of high points of Young’s career or simply missed them altogether.
I want to say Greendale is Neil Young’s best work in years, but I haven’t really followed his work of the past decade. I’ve focused over the past few months on his peak years of the 1970s, which is also when I first discovered him. It’s too early to say that Greendale is on par with, say, Tonight’s the Night or Rust Never Sleepsbut it certainly has epic ambition, and it has obviously inspired him in a major way, as if he has pursued and uncorked some major statement that he wants everyone to hear. The disc is 78 wordy-but-never-wearisome minutes long, with some cuts clocking in at the I-can’t-stop-writing ten and twelve minute mark, and it comes with a DVD of the songs performed live. There’s also an exhaustive website, a reportedly theatrical tour, and a movie of some kind is reportedly in the works. The latter isn’t the greatest news, as Young’s previous cinematic adventures rank him as a film auteur of the Frank Zappa or Bob Dylan stripe, i.e., he makes unwatchable movies with often exceptional scores.
Distinct from Young’s other records, Greendale has a somewhat literary scope to it, as if Young wanted to write a rock and roll Great American Novel, full of fascinating characters and a plot both tragic and strange that says something of enormous import about the times we live in. There’s Grandfather Green, a stately old coot who reflects a time gone by, his son Earl, Earl’s wife Edith, their daughter Sun Green — who reminds me a bit of Prairie Wheeler in Thomas Pynchon’s novel Vineland — and Earl’s dope-dealing brother Jed. When Jed guns down a police officer named Carmichael, the family is placed in the media spotlight, which rather spontaneously brings on the grandfather’s heart-attack and — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — inspires the young Sun’s career as an environmental activist.
The themes are familiar from Young’s past: the withering away of values, and both the naivete, faith and decency of the Green family, namely Grandpa and Sun, in the face of all that’s greedy and gaudy. Young virtually acknowledges in the first cut he’s said this before: “Seems like that guy singin’ this song/Been doin’ it for a long time/Is there anything he knows/That he ain’t said?” (Nor is this the first time Young has been so reflective and introspective about a rock star’s role in the world.) Young also concedes in the rambling notes in the enclosed booklet that the Greendale plot was catch-as-catch-can, made up here and there on the way to the studio. No matter; it’s a rock record, and part of the charm of Greendale is that it’s an evolving story that exists somewhere at the edge of his subconscious, a make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair that does, actually, find some kind of strange midnight-in-America focus. We learn a fair amount about these people, and we seem to discover them along with their creator.
The sound overall is very Zuma — the opening chords on the first cut, “Falling From Above,” immediately brings to mind “Barstool Blues” — but you hear echoes of a lot of different Neil Youngs throughout. There’s the raw rocker of “Devil’s Sidewalk,” the After the Gold Rush soulfulness of “Bandit,” and the semi-anthemic “Be the Rain,” which will serve nicely as mood music for the next Greenpeace fundraiser. Young and his prowling, growling guitar delivers it all with the kind of improvisational moxie that characterizes his best work.
One thing’s for sure: you won’t hear another CD like it all year.