I recently wrote an essay about Neil Young’s song, “Cortez the Killer,” which is the latest attempt in my long-running quest to write about music in a way that makes any sense at all. I remembered this thread and realized that I never actually posted in it, even though I definitely wanted to! So here I am.
Last week, my friend described my relatively recent (albeit years-long) obsession with Neil Young as “completely inexplicable,” and I think the reason for this is manifold. The first reason is that Neil Young is one of those artists that I think has a few very different reputations, depending on your age and just how interested you are in rock music. For many people, he’s just some old rocker with a few hit songs, who it’s reasonable to want to listen to sometimes, but not considered worthy of a particularly “deep dive” or obsession.
Similarly, I remember one friend seeing that I had eight Modest Mouse albums on my iPod, and being absolutely flabbergasted that they had eight albums, because he considered them a one-or-two-hit wonder radio band from only knowing “Float On” and “Dashboard.” But as a big fan of Modest Mouse, I know that these two tracks represent a major shift in their style, and I think of them as a fiercely independent band singing depressing songs that seem like they sound good by accident.
Anyway, everyone I know is surprised when I tell them that Neil Young just never stopped releasing albums (he released one last month), and not just albums but interesting albums, at least to me, all the way up to at least the mid-2000s, after which maybe they are interesting only for the fact that he still has a surprising amount of energy and his voice has shifted into total old-man mode, which I find cool. “Welcome Back” from his 2021 album Barn is one of my favourite of his songs! Isn’t that something!
(I was talking to my mom about Neil Young once, and she was immensely confused until she realized that she had been thinking instead of Neil Diamond! What the heck! She must have thought I was nuts! Neil Diamond as a role model!)
Over the last few years, I have every few months or so (on average) added a new Neil Young album to my music library, mostly in chronological order, and have almost listened to every one of them now. Which I think makes me something of an expert, because there are over 40 of them. During this time, Neil Young has become a hero of mine, because it definitely feels to me that he never at any point lost that rock ‘n’ roll spirit, kept releasing albums in genres that no one thought he should have any business playing, kept singing about Incas and Mayans and what-not, and just never seemed bothered about whether an album did well or not. There’s not a single song that I listen to and think, “This was just written to play on the radio.” I know that’s a very subjective impression but hey, that’s just how it is.
It is fascinating to me that he followed up the mega-super-hit Harvest with his three most personal and sad albums, and then in the 80s started experimenting with synthesizers and vocoders in a weird and maybe off-putting way, not chasing the trend as much as embracing new technology to make sounds that are now recognizably Neil Young-esque but at the time were such a departure that his label sued him for it.
(I have an essay about Neil Young’s 80s music that has been percolating for a few years now, that is tentatively titled “Revolutionary Man Neil” and consists right now of two sentences. But one day! I will present it to the world!)
There are so many weird aspects to his process, like only recording under a full moon, or releasing the very first take of “Like a Hurricane” because he liked the energy, even though he flubs like half the notes. It never feels like he’s being experimental for the sake of it, but that there’s some sort of guiding spirit that influences all the notes he plays, even when he’s just banging on the same note for minutes on end.
I just think he has this feeling for the music that is unique, and he carries this sound and feeling through everything that he does, over 40+ albums and 50+ years! Crazy! And there are even amazing albums that he made decades ago and then didn’t release, such as Homegrown, which have been coming out recently and it’s like, wow! 70s Neil Young was so powerful that he shelved this!
My impression from posting about him on here is that what most people know about him are his ridiculous stunts, like pulling his music off Spotify, attempting to make his own music player device, and his electric car. I would just say that besides all that his music is really worth listening to, and he’s a massively inspiring figure to me. There’s so much emotion in these songs! Like when his voice cracks in “Mellow My Mind” or “White Line” (the Homegrown version.) It’s just so beautiful to me.