Narrative 10-song cycle about a fictional clan is Young's best work in a while
Recent young albums like Silver & Gold or Are You Passionate? have seemed aimless affairs, as if their author felt he ought to be saying something but wasn’t sure what. In dramatic contrast, Greendale is (if we must use the term) a concept album, 10 interlinked songs depicting the lives of several generations of the Green family, who live in the fictional town of Greendale.
Young played the album in its entirety at his recent UK shows, using just acoustic guitars and harmonica. On disc, he’s joined by Crazy Horse minus second guitarist Frank Sampedro, and plays it virtually all electric, leading from the front with his own raw and rowdy guitar. The exception is the slow and acoustic “Bandit”, Young de-tuning his bottom string so it rattles and buzzes against the fretboard.
Luckily, Young’s notion of a concept album differs from Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s. Far from sounding overwrought or overblown, Greendale is loose and semi-improvised, the band falling in behind Young’s simple chord progressions more through instinct than rehearsal. The narrative, with its tales of grandma and grandpa, Vietnam Vet turned painter Earl Green, good-neighbour-gone-bad Jed Green and eco-activist teenager Sun Green, is artless and unadorned, leaving plenty of spaces for the imagination to fill. “I just followed the story wherever it went,” Young told me while he was in London recently. “I wasn’t worried about it making sense or connecting. It was kinda like a bird flying around?wherever it lands it sees something, y’know, and that’s the way I approached it.”
Young reckons the death of his father-in-law last year helped start his creative juices flowing, and we probably have George Bush and his war frenzy to thank for giving him a fresh bone to chew on. In some respects, Greendale is Neil coming full circle, still espousing the homespun values of albums like Hawks & Doves or Old Ways but recognising that these are now under threat from power-mad politicians and an intrusive media. As grandpa Green says in “Grandpa’s Interview”, as his house is surrounded by news crews, “It ain’t an honour to be on TV and it ain’t a duty, either,” contrary to the way they think on Big Brother. Sun Green is like a version of the Neil Young of 30 years ago?headstrong, idealistic and determined to fight for her convictions.
Musically, Greendale presents a quintessentially roughshod Young, frequently relying on that old Crazy Horse plod (as on “Falling From Above” or “Devil’s Sidewalk”), raunching it up on the protest-flavoured “Sun Green” or rolling out a lazy R&B groove on “Double E”. The final track, “Be The Rain”, is a full-tilt anthem in which Neil and a massed chorus insist we have to “save mother earth” and “save the planet for another day”. This broad-brush sloganeering is somewhat less convincing than “Bandit”, with its quietly plaintive refrain of “someday you’ll find everything you’re looking for”.
But the good news is Young has found himself a different kind of voice and some fresh inspiration. My review copy didn’t contain the DVD of Neil’s matching Greendale home movie but, crude as it is, it makes a powerful companion piece to the album.