Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Colorado review – a direct, disgruntled din

Deeply personal ballads and the incredible potency of his band elevate Young’s 39th album above his painfully on-the-nose political messaging

It’s hard to know where to level your expectations of Neil Young’s 39th album. On the one hand, it’s a long time since Young made a genuinely great album of original material – the Daniel Lanois-produced Le Noise, which came out nearly a decade ago – and longer still since he managed to reach anything like the skyscraping artistic heights he attained as a matter of course in the 1970s: the charts are full of people who weren’t even born when Sleeps With Angels was released in 1994.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Colorado album artwork.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse: Colorado album artwork. Photograph: Publicity image

On the other hand, Colorado is an album recorded amid personal turmoil – his ex-wife Pegi died of cancer in January; Elliot Roberts, his manager and co-conspirator for half a century, passed away in June – and, unfortunately for him, Young has a tendency to make his best albums amid personal turmoil and loss: On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night, Sleeps With Angels, even Le Noise, which was haunted by the loss of longtime collaborators Ben Keith and Larry Johnson.

Then again, Colorado arrives with an accompanying film, Mountaintop, and there are few phrases more likely to sink the spirits of the long-term Young fan than “Neil’s made another film”. Young has persisted in making films since the early 70s without ever getting any better at it; his filmography is a now-bulging file of evidence to suggest he should step away from the director’s chair for the good of humanity. As it turns out, Mountaintop is merely boring, rather than excruciating: anyone who wants to spend 90 minutes watching Neil Young arguing about the volume of his amplifier and inhaling oxygen to combat the altitude of the Colorado studio where he’s recording is in for a treat, but better that than one of his arthouse films, which can leave you wondering if the more repressive Middle East theocracies didn’t have a point when it came to banning cinema altogether.

The album itself, meanwhile, reunites Young with Crazy Horse, his most dependable backing band. Like Young’s film-making, Crazy Horse have somehow contrived to get no better at all over 50 years. Unlike Young’s film-making, they didn’t need to improve: from the moment they lumbered into view, horrifying Young’s peers with their rudimentary abilities, Crazy Horse sounded amazing, like some hulking, rusty bit of farm machinery that barely works but somehow generates incredible power. You can hear it on Colorado’s centrepiece, She Showed Me Love: there’s an astonishing moment halfway through when drummer Ralph Molina just stops playing, as though he mistakenly thinks the song’s over, before sheepishly starting up again a couple of beats later. But the potency of the grinding din they create is inarguable, elevating Young’s hokey lyrics – Mother Nature pushing Earth around in a pram, etc – adding an unmistakeable edge. They do the same on Shut It Down: the contrast between the sweetness of their harmonies and the corrosive noise of their guitars is enough to distract you from their leader wailing: “What about the animals? What about the birds and bees?”

The problem with Colorado is that Young doesn’t want you to be distracted from his lyrics: the pretty Green Is Blue aside, the melodies are largely perfunctory and Young talks as much as he sings. He’s never been more politically and socially engaged than in recent years, which has led him to toss off screeds of songs in the all-the-news-that’s-fit-to-sing style of an old protest folkie. It’s a mode that served him well on 1970’s livid Ohio, but in truth, most of his great sociopolitical songs are oblique: the hallucinatory After the Gold Rush; Campaigner’s complex meditation on Richard Nixon’s demise; Rockin’ in the Free World’s equivocal response to the collapse of communism. Of late, his political songs have been almost painfully on the nose. As one critic rightly noted of 2015’s The Monsanto Years, the lyrics were so prosaic, it frequently felt like reading an article about the dangers of GMO; it was more effective as protest – Monsanto considered suing him – than it was as music. Here, the focus is once more on politics – Roberts’s passing is alluded to in the touching ballad Olden Days, and there are a couple of songs clearly inspired by new wife Daryl Hannah, but other than that, it’s the horrors of climate change, Trump and the alt-right all the way. You never doubt Young’s sincerity, but he expresses his message via cliches and sloganeering.

In fairness, maybe he feels he has to be as direct as possible. Most artists who essay this kind of stuff do so expecting their audience to nod in agreement, but Young’s fans don’t necessarily cleave to any liberal consensus, as evidenced by the bedlam caused among their ranks by 2006’s anti-Bush Living With War. But the end result is another Neil Young album to add to the pile of the not-bad and the OK he’s amassed over the last decade, while a steady stream of archive releases highlight how great Neil Young can be at his best: as good as any artist in rock history, and certainly better than this.

This week Alexis listened to

Floating Points – Bias
The greatness of Sam Shepherd’s second album distilled into one track: starts out as pensive and haunting home listening, explodes into dancefloor life midway through.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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