Although I consider myself a pretty major Neil Young fan, I will be the first to admit that there are large chunks of his catalog that are — shall we say — "spotty."
There are of course those Neil Young records which are unqualified masterpieces — a category where I would squarely place Harvest, Harvest Moon, Rust Never Sleeps, and Freedom. And for every one of those, at the other end of the spectrum you've got those records like Everybody's Rockin and Life that just kind of make you scratch your head and go "what was he thinking?"
But there are also those albums that I like to think of as Neil's "in-between" records. A few of these have been real surprises that have grown to be among my favorites over the years, such as the droning, depressing On The Beach and the grungey, Kurt Cobain-influenced Sleeps With Angels (whose Cobain tribute "Change Your Mind" is a song I'd rank among his best).
Neil also has made a handful of albums that have one or two standout tracks, with the rest consisting — on the surface at least — mainly of filler. American Stars And Bars struck me that way the first time that I heard it, with the brilliant "Like A Hurricane" standing way out from the rest of the pack on that record. Even so, over the years the rest of the album eventually really came to grow on me – especially the fireside crackle of "Will To Love." The more recent Are You Passionate is another one of those, although nothing else on that album has stayed with me quite the same way the blazing guitar of "Comin' Home" did.
On an initial listen, Chrome Dreams II really feels like another one of those type of albums. Like those other "in-between" albums, lying at the center of Chrome Dreams II are two standout tracks.
The sprawling, eighteen minute "Ordinary People" is one of those marathon Neil Young songs, like "Hurricane" and "Cortez The Killer," that basically serves as a vehicle for him to go off on a trance-like guitar excursion for which he is so well known.
Unlike those songs, however, the guitar work is less grungy sounding than recent electric Neil Young – and definitely less so than on Living With War, last year's cranked to eleven anti-Bush rant. In places the guitar here actually hearkens more back to the psychedelic sound of something like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and that album's own twin blasts of extended, electric Neil, "Cowgirl In The Sand" and "Down By The River." There are also some nice keyboards, and a horn section backing the track that takes you back to the bluesy sound of This Note's For You.
"Ordinary People," like many of the tracks here is also apparently one that has been around for awhile, which explains some of the dated sounding references to people like Lee Iacocca in the lyrics. Available in bootleg versions for years, the track is said to be part of an original Chrome Dreams CD that Neil nearly released in 1976.
As the story goes, he shelved the project after Joni Mitchell criticized it as being a little too "all over the place." Whether he chose to revisit this project now as a result of his ongoing trip through the vaults for the impending definitive series of Archives said to be finally about to see the light of day or not, the description fits here as well.
The other "big" track here is "No Hidden Path," which like "Ordinary People" is another lengthy electric guitar workout, which at eleven minutes is only slightly shorter. Here again, the big dark sounding guitar work is front and center, but Neil again seems more interested in revisiting the more psychedelic edges of his early work than the grunge of nineties-era Crazy Horse. For fans of the lengthy Neil Young guitar opus in the tradition of "Hurricane" and "Cortez," these two tracks alone make Chrome Dreams II a must-have.
Outside of those, Chrome Dreams II is an album that is as all over the place as its apparently thirty-year-old source material would seem to indicate. The rest of the album is a mixed bag to be sure. "Dirty Old Man" is a goofy-ass songs in the tradition of Ragged Glory's "Fuckin' Up" that Neil comes up with from time to time. This one is about a "Dirty Old Man" who likes to get hammered and fool around with the boss' wife. The track is actually a lot of fun, and hearkens back to the lovingly, but sloppily executed rock sound that fans of Crazy Horse will love.
"Boxcar" starts out with the sort of banjo sound that would have been right at home on Prairie Wind, and maintains a lovely sort of country vibe, as it weaves a plaintive tale of a vagabond on a freight train in the lyrics.
Meanwhile, other tracks here seem to take on a more spiritual tone. The borderline gospel of "Shining Light" never makes it quite clear whether the "shining light" that Neil has found here comes in the form of carnal love or the divine. Either way, the song is one of the prettiest he has included on an album in awhile. "The Believer" is another song that seems to hint at spirituality, but is never overtly clear about it. The arrangement here is a quiet, simple, and understated one of piano, guitar, and drums.
For "Spirit Road" he once again straps on the electric guitar and mines more familiar terrain in the lyrics as well. "Spirit Road" finds him "headed out on the long highway in your mind" in search of the "spirit road you had to find" where "getting home to peace again" await the traveler at the road's end.
So on its surface, Chrome Dreams II is a mixed bag that feels like one of those notoriously "in-between" Neil Young albums I alluded to earlier. Some are calling it his best in years, although I'm not really sure I'm quite ready to go there yet. What I will say is that there is at least a little bit of every element here that has made Neil Young such an enduring artist over the years.
There's some nice quiet acoustic stuff, some of the grungier sound you'd more often associate with Crazy Horse, and even a few surprises in the form of a few gospel flavored tracks. And there are at least two lengthy electric guitar classics in the mode of "Like A Hurricane."
For right now, that's good enough for me.