I have a feeling that shortly after Neil Young announced his plans to release an album of cover tunes – mostly old timey American campfire songs like “Oh Susannah” and “Comin’ Round The Moutain” – somebody from the Home Shopping Network was trying to get Neil’s management on the phone to arrange an on-air appearance, maybe even wrangle an exclusive release to HSN customers for the first week. It’s worked for his esteemed colleagues Brian Wilson and Rod Stewart, after all, even managed to position their respective collections of Disney and “classic sixties” repertoires onto the charts for a week or two. And I like to imagine Young’s manager Elliot Roberts appearing to take the bait and sending an advance copy of the album to HSN’s executives on the condition that he get to watch their faces when the “play” button was pressed.
While the covers album has become a reliable mechanism for aging rockers in need of floggable product– even Paul McCartney took the bait this year – Americana is one of the least commercial albums ever issued by a major label. It’s not entirely clear who, outside of a diminishing number of Neil Young completists, this album was made for, and it joins a long list of downright befuddling recordings that Young has released over the years. This is not “one for the fans”, it’s a reminder to his fan base how willing he is to live without us. One imagines him as Dr. Frank N. Furter, standing protectively in front of his creation, hollering “I didn’t make him for YOU.”
The records Young makes with his band Crazy Horse – guitarist Poncho Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina – are not what one might call over-worked. They’re loose, funky, and littered with obvious mistakes. But even to a fan of that free-wheeling approach, this one feels downright slapdash. “We gotta work on that ending,” someone in the room notes at the end of an otherwise fabulous version of “Movin’ On,” a factually correct observation. “That was a GREAT ending,” replies their fearless leader.
That fearlessness is, of course, one of the most endearing qualities of Crazy Horse; other rhythm sections remember their parts with greater accuracy and play them with greater precision, but none has ever given Young so much access to the most unchained part of his muse. It’s within the Horse that Young seems truly free. “It’s not that they fuck up that makes them great,” he explained to biographer Jimmy McDonough years ago, “that’s a by-product of the abandon they play with.” But not all of the fluffy changes on here feel like the result of guys getting a little too into what they’re doing – there are moments on Americana where the group seems not have agreed on any particular arrangement before rolling tape.
While that might not seem to be a problem when playing songs we all learned when we were kids, Young is too naturally perverse to hold a straight line in most of the tunes’ arrangements. “Susannah” is barely recognizable, its melody altered to a doomy minor-key dirge. “Clementine” gets a similar revision, as Young delights in emphasizing the tragedy of the lyrics that most of us don’t remember, like the one in which he recalls how he “kissed her little sister and forgot my Clementine.” Even if we learned these songs as kids, they’re not kid stuff.
But if it’s not an obvious hit, it would still be a mistake to write it off. “Movin’ On”, containing the record’s wildest guitar forays, is nearly perfect for its first five and a half minutes, before they have to worry about wrapping it up. And you can just imagine the band rolling on the floor after completing their fuzzed-out romp through “God Save The Queen” (the English national anthem, not the Pistols song, though that would have also been welcome.) The version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”, while played musically fairly straight, is made up entirely of the song’s infamous “lost” verses, one of which may be my favorite lyric of all time:
As I went walking along the highway
I saw a sign there, said ‘No Trespassing’
But on the other side
It didn’t say nothing
THAT SIDE was made for you and me!
And there it is. If we’re going to pay more than lip service to the idea of freedom in this country, with artistic freedom as a subset of that, I submit that we should encourage somebody with the sheer cojones to do a shambling, distorto-guitar rendition of the Coasters’ “Get A Job” – shades of the Horse’s doo-wop roots in Danny And The Memories – and present it to one of the largest entertainment conglomerates on earth as their latest cash cow, as well as a wry comment on our current economic climate. Let’s see HSN sell a hundred thousand copies of THAT this week.
Americana is not going to be for everyone. It will likely end up toward the bottom of everyone’s list when folks start ranking his albums in numeric order, as if art was sports. It’s the only album of his that would surely have benefitted from a little old fashioned show biz discipline like “band practice”. But the people habitually indulge Weird Neil are going to find something to love in it. The real Tom Dooley got no second chance, and Young’s not giving his band one this time around, or himself.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse play the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, October 17 with special guests Los Lobos and Infantree. Tickets on sale Sunday at Ticketmaster.