No Interweb argonaut under the sun needs any further thinkpiece or featured essay on anything to do with legendary and God-like status singer/songwriter Neil Young. The 76-year-old Canadian-American Grammy and Juno Awards winner has successfully been conducting a prolific and accomplished recorded musical career for over fifty years now, has put out around fifty studio albums depending on how one counts, and can probably tally up articles, reviews, and profiles about him in the thousands at this point. Gentleman’s got content under his cowboy belt—whether that’s auditory wavelengths captured, fixated to medium, and dished out first-handedly by Young himself, or shelled by the wider “villain” media and entertainment lunar system, the sheer critical mass of information readily available about the glorious Crazy Horse bandleader is pretty much countless.
What’s certain is that this is not the right place to find an objective, lineage-faithful, enduring, or even chronicling literary pièce de résistance on the former Crosby, Stills & Nash-affiliate. Instead, much like previous instalments hitting this neck of the webwood, the presently unfolding before your very eyes sets out to be a rather short, straightforward, passionate, and biased two cents-container attempting at making head or tails of yet another sublimely mesmerizing and thoroughly compelling late-into-the-calendar-year, early December alt-folk outing for the ages. Whilst admittedly being taken aback and left disarmed by the whole notion of a new Neil Young & Crazy Horse collection of original tracks to begin with, the rootsy collective’s fourteenth studio album to date Barn materialized as a low-key two for two for the Ontario-native musician, following in the outstanding spiritual footsteps of last year’s re-exhumed Homegrown.
While clearly ontologically fungible from the above hypothetical continuing field of comparison on account of the not-so-insignificant addition of Young’s iconic and larger-than-life backing band Crazy Horse—which after inordinate amounts of line up changes both imposed and by design, in 2021 responds to the names of Billy Talbot on bass, Ralph Molina on drums, and former E Street Band six-string fixture Nils Lofgren—barring a few live re-issues in-between the two projects, Barn represents the official successor to Homegrown for all intents and purposes (which in turn, mind you, was actually recorded in the mid 1970s). In many ways akin to the latter in its nonchalant low-fidelity woven into straight up memorable songwriting immediacy, this latest Volume Dealers-produced LP came out on Warner Music’s Reprise Records on 10th December, and can be further unpacked, dissected, and experienced on the folk rock heavyweight’s brilliant digital Archives service.
At the risk of sounding microwaved and self-evident, a communal musical undercurrent to all ten cuts on this thing is their off-the-cuff, pulsating, (other)wordly, if haphazard ethos: admittedly not always working to the record’s presentation and packaging favour (one can’t but irritatedly fret at how unsanitized, butchered, and abrupt the fade out outros on “Canerican” and “Shape of You” ring), there is a sharp ‘in the moment’ sewing through the album’s tapestry. Much of this sweaty and stoic oomph could undoubtedly be attributed to the rustic and rural recording sessions and their live take approach, taking place in, well, a barn skewed deep into the soil in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Reflecting the very edifice’s rudimentary, leaky, and perforated architectural layout, these songs sound simultaneously like the best version possible of a rough draft demo and as polished and glossy a taping round could get in such a dusty and austere environment. If there ever was an album in 2021 for which overused and gentrified attributes such as earthy and organic could be stitched to, then it’s Barn.
In spite of his best efforts to balance it all out for the heretic master compressions required by skimpy contemporary digital streaming services, Young’s voice is barely audible when buried in the EQ and mixing on fierce rockier standout “Heading West” or even the defiant blues-soaked “Change Ain’t Never Gonna“, giving listeners the impression they oughta move closer to the stereo PAs funnelling the vocals to properly make out what’s being sung. Modern sound engineering 101 breaches notwithstanding, such an idiosyncrasy directly adds to the record’s charm, mystique, and charisma, poetically annulling sterilized barriers of gatekeeping control exercised by today’s means of music distribution. The fact of the matter remains: this album—and above all its recording—is flawed, spotty, but grand, looking a little too sonically obfuscated and muffled to lure in casual Zoomer listeners, but emanating too much intention and earnestness to be written off by musical savants. Not unlike the very wooden angular barn depicted on the project’s front cover.
There exists lots on this full length that is perhaps purposefully left to mystical imagination, such as a subdued yet clearly registerable nod to Young’s storied creative kinship with Pearl Jam (the aforementioned “Canerican”‘s clawed opening riff tastefully recalls that of the grunge giants’ smash hit single “Alive“). Meanwhile, the record’s tail end is a pure sight for romantic eyes, with “Tumblin’ Thru The Years“, “Welcome Back“, and “Don’t Forget Love” all supplying boundless degrees of unconditional tender and elliptical daydreaming, one after another, rarely dared to display in the mainstream. It’s genuinely hard to imagine a seasoned and surly old man pushing eighty—of Young’s caliber, no less—melt like Swiss cheese over lyrics such as: “When you’re angry and you’re lashing out, don’t forget love / You don’t know what you’re talking about, don’t forget love / When the wind blows through the crime scene and the TV man starts talking fast, don’t forget love“.
Lest this goes unnoticed: pretty much every composition on Barn sports but a handful of chord changes throughout itself, and any additional bell and whistle fleshing out the necessary meat on each song’s bone clocks in as nothing more than instinctive and captivating instrumental improvisation (case in point, the beautiful intermezzos of the formidable “Welcome Back”). They say growing old bestows perspective, wisdom, and tranquility upon the bearer, and in Neil Young’s case—and crucially on Barn—such a rite-of-passage appeared to have translated into a confident back to basics approach. Everything from the songwriting, to the innocent topical focus, through to the undeniable stickiness of some of the hooks, sounds dated, evergreen, and entropic in nature at the same time. Mr Young might be an old man by now, but he sure has been first and last, nimble enough to look at how the time goes past, ascertaining that he might still be all alone at last: ultimately rolling home to his true inner self.
I’d like to thank you sincerely for taking the time to read this and I hope to feel your interest again next time.