There are some musical performers who are as comfortable as an old favorite sweater.
You can always count on them to deliver the same thing consistently. There are no real surprises when you get one of their new recordings — in fact you can pretty much predict what will be on an album before you buy it.
While that might be a bit boring, it does have the redeeming quality of being a certainty in an uncertain world.
On the other hand, there are those artists from whom you never know what you're going to get. Each recording they do is such a radical change from what they did before, that it's almost a crapshoot whether you're even going to enjoy what they put out each time.
These are the artists whose work is always exciting and challenging, and are guaranteed to make your life a little more interesting. In the current climate — where pop music plays it as safe as possible, and strives to recreate a successful formula over and over again — they are like a breath of fresh air. No matter how jarring they can be at times.
But there is a far rarer breed of animal then either one of those two, and that is the performer who has managed to combine both of those elements. Always challenging and never pigeon-holed, yet at the same time so talented that you feel that no matter what they do it's worthwhile. You get the same guarantee of certainty that you did with the guy who does the same thing over and over again.
Although, there aren't too many of those anymore, I do know of one.
I can't remember a time in pop music when Neil Young wasn't putting out recordings. From the time, I became aware that there was such a thing as rock and roll, Neil has been churning the stuff out.
From his extremely early days at The Riverboat in Toronto, Ontario — showing up in California driving a hearse and becoming part of Buffalo Springfield — to the retired country farmer that he seems to have become now as he has aged, Neil Young has been continually lurking around the edges of stardom.
But that's not something that's likely to ever happen in the "celebrity" sense of the word — he's just far too uncompromising when it comes to his music. He does what he feels like, when he feels like, and with whom he feels like doing it. Neil Young has done this his whole career. Whether working with his band Crazy Horse, touring with the Shocking Pinks performing rockabilly, or even that scary period when he put out Trans where he played with electronic music, he's never given a rat's ass for whatever anyone else has thought.
In spite of that, for people that are fans of his work he remains a constant in a world of inconsistency, because of his individuality and the distinctive sound of his voice. It doesn't seem to matter if he's singing one of his folk songs like "Sugar Mountain," or burning the roof off with something like "Down By The River." In the last few years, he's spread his artistic wings even further by getting involved with making movies based on song cycles he has created.
But music is still what he does best and while there are those who will probably disagree with me, I think his latest Chrome Dreams ll is one of his better efforts in years. Last year's Prairie Wind was a step in the right direction, but I found it a little too sentimental, and lacking the bite that normally elevates his acoustic work beyond the norm. Although considering the year he had come through (surgery for a brain aneurysm and the death of his father) it was more then a little understandable.
Chrome Dreams ll sees Neil still working the quieter side of the street. But the lyrics have a lot more to them. In some ways, its the equivalent of the novel where the characters go on a long road journey. But the real road their travelling along is the one inside where you begin to figure out things about yourself. Road and travel imagery abound in the songs on this disc. But they primarily exist to help explain the inner journey needed to get back home to yourself.
From the bluebird who always looks like she's flying home in the opening track, "Beautiful Bluebird", to the spirit road in your mind that you have to find to get home that's talked about in "Spirit Road", to the fact that it's not that big a mystery on on "No Hidden Path," — Young talks about the importance of taking the time to get to know yourself and the world about you.
Spirituality is not something that most people are too comfortable talking about in our society. But Neil doesn't share that reluctance. Heck, I've always found "Helpless" to be one of the most spiritually moving songs I've ever heard, because of the way it evokes the power that memories have on the spirit. So it shouldn't surprise people to hear Neil advocate finding your spirit road, or talking about praying among the trees.
But then again it just might.
Neil is one of the few folk who can actually write a musically satirical song. Maybe it's his voice, or something to do with the way he can control his inflection. "Dirty Old Man" is a typical example of his best satire. What sounds funny and glib on the surface is really a criticism of those people who find those sorts of attitudes funny. There's nothing funny about people who are drunks and piss their lives away, yet you can already hear the idiots cheering when Neil sings "I love to get hammered on a Friday night, but sometimes I can't wait and Monday's alright".
"Dirty Old Man" is the path most often taken by people in North America, instead of trying to learn how to fly like the Bluebird and make their way home. In the last song of the disc, "The Way", — when he sings, "we know the way", — he's only speaking the truth because we do all know the way. The trouble is most of us aren't interested in doing anything but becoming a selfish, self-indulgent, dirty old man.
For those of you who have wondered what new thing Neil Young is going to throw at them with this album, the answer lies in the content.
By far the most introspective recording of his career, Chrome Dreams ll may be a little more disconcerting then his recordings that were musically challenging. It happens far less often these days then it used to for someone to put out a recording demanding the listener listen to the lyrics in order to fully appreciate it.
It does happen but not that often, and not with the level of intelligence and intensity that is displayed on this album.
It would be easy to dismiss Chrome Dreams ll as the consequence of a near death experience, and the death of somebody close to Neil Young's heart. But that would be a disservice to both his creative power and his commitment to his art form. Of course the events of the past year will have affected Mr. Young, but this recording goes far beyond being merely a reaction to life – it is a guide to life and getting the most out of it.
If you want to check out some of the songs on the recording you can head over to Neil's YouTube site where they have four songs in rotation.