Growing pains: The nasty noughties and Neil Young’s difficult decade

As the iconic singer songwriter celebrates his 65th birthday, Rob Garratt looks back over Neil Young’s erratic, infuriating recent works.

At the turn of the millennium, it looked like Neil Young was content to drift into old age with decorum and grace. Having not put out an album for four whole years, he celebrated his 55th birthday – and the turn of the millennium – with the low-key Silver and Gold, an introspective acoustic record which was by far his quietest, safest release to date. It was a harsh contrast to a decade earlier.

At the turn of nineties, the idiosyncratic rocker reinvented himself after years of artistic obscurity with 1989’s Freedom. This was followed by relentless workload, claiming the crown as “Godfather of Grunge” with a string of LPs with Crazy Horse, Ragged Glory (1990), Sleeps with Angels (1994) and Broken Arrow (1996), on top of quiet commercial smashes Harvest Moon (1992) and Unplugged (1993), and Pearl Jam collaboration Mirrorball (1995).

Which made Silver and Gold’s glowing nostalgia a pleasant change of pace. After spewing out records of howling guitar and spicy vitriol for the best part of the nineties, he now painted the self-portrait of a comfortable elderly gent basking in the glow of nostalgia. Its opener, Good to See You, hummed along like a greeting to an old friend, while Buffalo Springfield Again saw Young finally make peace with the ghost of Stephen Stills. Only the sharp Razor Love, which dated back to Freedom, cast any sense of Young’s trademark doubt and frailty.

This sense of retiring content was rinsed further on Are You Passionate? (2002) – which could easily have been answered with the word “no”. A collaboration with legendary soul group Booker T and the MGs, Young seemed aloof from the Memphis-lite arrangements, while the lyrics cantered along offering dull insights into Young’s family (see “You’re My Girl”, about his daughter leaving home). Only Goin’ Home, a sole tune with Crazy Horse, and Let’s Roll, a hasty and clumsy response to 9/11, had any spark.

But expectations were shattered with what came next – 2003’s Greendale, a bizarre concept album the Green family and their fictional hometown of the same name. It was easy to get caught up in all the buzz – Young providing a scathing critique of contemporary small town America – but in reality the content was all rather scattershot. It was an indulgent but enjoyable album, but the resulting tour/musical/film/graphic novel was a lot of hype over a record which was acknowledged as a grand compositional accident. Musically, it was practically Young folding in on himself – the same basic chords and attacks, stripped back to just the plodding bass and drums of Crazy Horse.

Prairie Wind (2005) displayed all the best qualities of Young’s emerging mature style. A largely subdued but not complacent affair, it held the bite of Greendale with the blunt confessionalism of Silver and Gold. With recording interrupted by a life-threatening aneurysm, the sessions had an urgency and intensity lacking from its predecessors. Backed by a troupe of old friends – with pedal steel vet Ben Keith to the fore – the material was dealt timeless, country-tinged arrangements. The raging No Wonder could easily be the best thing he recorded all decade.

The intensity was vamped up on Living with War (2006) – a knocked off “folk-metal” LP lambasting the USA’s invasion of Iraq and calling for the impeachment of George Bush. Thrown together in just two weeks – with a 100-strong choir and lone trumpet hastily overdubbed onto the raging power trio arrangements – the record hit the shelves just days later. It’s not clear what suddenly motivated Young to speak after several years of US occupation in Iraq, but it was inspiring to hear the old guy full of rage, howling his way through songs like Shock and Awe with the bluster of a man half his age.

Which made its follow-up, 2008’s Chrome Dreams II, yet more of a headscratcher. Centring around two epics – the 80s leftover Ordinary People and the guitar freakout No Hidden Path – the record lurched through styles and moods, and sounded like Young was trying as hard as he had for years to actually make a great “product”. Consequently, like Freedom before it, the LP was marked by peaks of excellence scattered throughout a landscape of inconsequence. A tricky album with plenty of rewards for those prepared to dig for them.

And 2009’s Fork in the Road even more oblique. Back in knocked-off punk mode, this 10-track concept album about Young’s investment in an electric car project slipped by practically unnoticed. A curiosity, a vanity project, the last whimpers of inconsequence from a great artist having a laugh on his laurels – it had some enjoyable grooves but was always one for the collector’s shelves.

Celebrating his 65th birthday last November, Young had one last thing to say before cashing in his pension. Le Noise is as dark, disturbed and raging as anything that came before it. Produced by hot shot Daniel Lanois, it sees Young’s growling electric guitar standing naked without a band, but looped and underplayed by studio trickery. Inspired by Ben Keith’s death – like Tonight’s the Night was inspired by Danny Whitten’s passing before it – Young’s lyrics painted a bitter picture of an Angry World. Riveting, unsettling, but hard to ignore.

Every turn of the last decade has seen Young surprise and startle, but one thing is clear – he is refusing to go out quietly, despite the warning sounds earlier in the last decade. We can only hope he continues to dazzle and infuriate with his remaining years, because there can’t be many decades left before Le Noise takes him for good…

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