No matter how much you love music, you can't avoid gaps in your knowledge — there's just not enough time to listen to everything. Until recently, the music of Bruce Springsteen was such an unknown for me. Then I "discovered" Nebraska and Born to Run late last year: it was love at first sight. I haven't gotten around to exploring Neil Young's discography yet, but it is certainly possible that joys await me there. Once upon a time, I discovered the Talking Heads in a little film called Stop Making Sense, by one Jonathan Demme, and I wondered if perhaps his latest film Neil Young: Heart of Gold might serve as a similar doorway into the world of Neil Young. Alas, it is not to be.
I'm familiar only with Young's greatest hits, songs like "Old Man" and "Southern Man." This lack of context certainly has an impact on my appreciation for his latest effort, and if I ever become more thoroughly acquainted with his body of work I might come back to Prairie Wind and find it richer, more alive.
Right now, though, I'm struck most by the total absence of ambiguity. Prairie Wind sounds to me like old Neil Young, singin' about what he sees: "It's a Dream" for instance: "An old man walks along on the sidewalk/Sunglasses and an old Stetson hat/The four winds blow the back of his overcoat away/As he stops with the policeman to chat."
Or the eponymous track, about his father's bout with dementia: "Trying to remember what my daddy said/Before too much time took away his head." Nostalgia seems to be a strand that runs through all of his work, but it's so much more poignant in the older songs that he sings in the latter part of the film.
There's a sadness, a weariness in the lyrics of "Old Man" ("Doesn't mean that much to me/To mean that much to you") that's missing from Prairie Wind's simple, terse, descriptive phrases. Responding to my surprise at the film's strong critical reception, my roommate joked, "well, they're all old." Maybe there's a bit of truth to that: these are songs about middle age, and the album's simplicity does lend itself to projection. But does that make it a good album?