Wild Mercury Sound
Neil Young's "Chrome Dreams II"
Apart from a few Beach Boys and Kosmische things I picked up in America in the early ‘90s, I’ve never been much of a bootleg collector; never had the time, I guess, with so much legitimately released music to get hooked on. As a consequence, my knowledge of Neil Young’s “Chrome Dreams” was limited to hazy memories from rush-reading Jimmy McDonough’s “Shakey” until news of “Chrome Dreams II” broke a few weeks ago.
I’ve heard “Chrome Dreams II” now, and I’m broadly struggling to see its connection to the first mythical set. In some ways, it’s a kind of reverse: if “Chrome Dreams” was a collection of great Neil songs that were subsequently dispersed across various disparate albums, “Chrome Dreams II” in part seems to be a collection of disparate, mainly great Neil songs that have been gathered together, somewhat belatedly.
We know – thanks to the unflinchingly accurate internet, at least – that the first three songs on this new album were all written and abandoned by Young at some point in the ‘80s. “Beautiful Bluebird”, a rheumy-eyed country amble, would have featured on the original, rejected version of “Old Ways”. “Boxcar”, a twanging and discreetly propulsive train song, was part of the shelved “Times Square” set that just predated “Freedom”.
There is no palpable reason why he’s sat on these two tunes for so long, but the mystery becomes more pronounced when track three arrives, and seems determined to never leave. This is “Ordinary People”, a heroically trudging narrative that lasts over 18 minutes and originates from the Bluenotes sessions circa “This Note’s For You” (if you look on Youtube, there’s some footage of Young playing the song live in 1988). My favourite Neil music has always been electric and long, with a sort of relentless, dogged purpose to it.
You could probably measure the pace of “Ordinary People” in swings of a wrecking ball, but there’s a difference between this and obvious comparison tracks like “Cortez The Killer” and “Like A Hurricane”. As each verse ends and Young steps up to solo, he’s joined by a blaring horn section, who occasionally duck out for solos themselves. When the sax player moves into the spotlight, and a piano line rolls through the mix, there’s an odd echo of ‘70s E-Street Band. It’s preposterous, and fantastic.
After this, the rest of the album is purportedly new music. Unlike “Living With War”, “Prairie Wind” et al, Young doesn’t stick to one style. Instead, he promiscuously wanders through a pretty wide range; it’s notable that his band here features one Crazy Horse (Ralph Molina), one Stray Gator (Ben Keith) and one Bluenote (Rick Rosas). Not all of these diversions are entirely welcome: “Shining Light” and “The Believer” have a limpid soul lilt that reminds me a little of my least favourite Neil album, “Are You Passionate?”; and the closing “The Way” nails the recurring theme of finding a path back to contentment, home, spiritual fulfilment and such, but does so with the aid of an inevitably mawkish children’s choir.
“Spirit Road” tackles the same issues much better, with a rattly belligerence and massed vocals that recalls “Living With War” and the best parts of “Greendale”. There are a couple more great rock songs on “Chrome Dreams II”, too: “Dirty Old Man” is a crude-as-hell garage gruntalong that reminds me variously of “Re-Ac-Tor”, some of “Ragged Glory” and “Piece Of Crap” from “Sleeps With Angels”. Even better, “No Hidden Path” is another epic workout (a measly 11 and a half minutes, if you’re counting), that very nearly matches “Ordinary People” for gravity, sustained intensity, and the sense that Young is still uncommonly close to the top of his game.
The whole thing adds up to an uncharacteristically satisfying hotch-potch. It’s a fool’s game to try and understand Neil Young’s infallibly contrary thought processes, but it sounds as if the preparation of Archives has inspired him to look at his career as a whole, to make more explicit the way it all fits together. After the righteous indignation of “Living With War”, the prevailing mood of “Chrome Dreams II” is of finding contentment. But what makes it so gripping is the number of contrasting ways that Young finds to make his point.