Not for the first time, a new record involving Neil Young arrives for review, and it strikes me yet again how much this man gets away with. Here, on “Déjà Vu Live”, his curmudgeonly vim has compelled David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash to perform a bunch of songs from his “Living With War” album; presumably, this must have been one of his demands before he signed up for the 2006 CSNY tour.
The thought occurs that Crosby, Stills and Nash would probably sing a setful of Sesame Street songs if it meant they could get Neil’s name on the ticket. But still, it’s a surprise to find that, on the album of the film of the tour, half of the 14 songs are from “Living With War” (there are actually 16 tracks, but three of them are versions of “Living With War” itself; two are piano instrumental takes in the studio, weirdly). Surely, those bandmates must have lobbied hard for a more commercial selection from their lucrative back catalogues? Or should we just assume that this is just another of Young’s conditions, a desire to memorialise the whole project as a polemical jaunt rather than a lucrative reunion?
I guess so. The weird thing is, for all Young’s just-about-plausible logic – that his harmonious old sparring partners would effectively fill in for the 100-strong choir on “Living With War” – the live versions here of “Let’s Impeach The President” and so on don’t entirely work, bugle notwithstanding. What’s apparent is the sheer truculent oddness of Young’s songwriting on these songs, how these brilliantly rickety, semi-spontaneous compositions are too rough-hewn for his bandmates. Young takes many of these songs fractionally more slowly than he did on the original record, but the chorus vocalists are still left sounding ragged, disoriented and way out of their comfort zone.
Young, almost certainly, must have taken a fair amount of pleasure in leaving his bandmates flailing. And there’s plenty of perverse mischief when he retains the crowd’s booing of “Let’s Impeach The President” on the disc. “Thank you. Freedom of speech,” he responds, rebel credentials satisfyingly reasserted. “Shock & Awe” works better, if only because the vocalists sound least like themselves, and most like the choir they replaced.
The best actual music on “Déjà Vu Live”, however, comes from notionally safer fare, when the four men seem to be on more or less the same page. On a tremendous version of “Déjà Vu” itself, a guitarist who sounds like Stills has a go at facing up to Young, with impressively fiery results; the contest is even feistier on “Wooden Ships”, as you might expect. Young, though, inevitably makes the most telling instrumental contribution, when he knocks a rollicking version of Nash’s “Military Madness” on its head with a brief and tempestuous holocaust of a solo.
It all makes for a tense and fascinating new chapter in Young’s extraordinary career, though probably not one of its most musically distinguished. What next? Logic dictates Archives, finally. But who’d bet against another new album materialising before that massive endeavour actually turns up. As long as he gets the damned thing out before Blu-Ray technology becomes obsolete, I suppose. . .