Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Tonight's The Night - Neil Young - album review

Every so often, artists or groups opt to take what is perceived as a diversion in their career path, but sometimes this is quite calculating, and intended merely to enhance their degree of "hipness" and mainstream success.

In the case of Neil Young, following the colossal success of 1972's Harvest, he deliberately took a detour, not for any other reason but to explore new territory and escape the treadmill.  Perhaps the most authentic and compelling product of that decision was Tonight's The Night, recorded mostly in 1973, but not released until 1975.

In addition to a conscious desire to defy stagnation and convention, the music which Neil Young wrote and recorded around this time also clearly addresses the fall-out from the era just past, and its impact on rock culture. The deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry cast a shadow over this album in particular.

Throughout Tonight's The Night, the arrangements and performances are ragged and almost disjointed, contrasting sharply with much of the singer-songwriter's previous work.  As well as signifying an intentional stylistic departure, the basic bluesy approach perfectly complements the lyrical subject matter.

The instrumental hallmarks of the album are also fundamental to its artistic success.  Nils Lofgren's brittle but superbly evocative guitar work is often to the fore, as is the weeping pedal steel guitar of Ben Keith.  The latter, and Young's harmonica are, essential to the subdued mood of several tracks.  These element are supported by the redoubtable Crazy Horse rhythm section.

Neil Young's vocals are as ragged as the backing tracks, sloppy and haphazard, or more accurately perhaps a natural consequence of the turmoil contained in the words of the songs themselves. The croakier, harsher Young voice proves perfectly expressive here, and in keeping with the uncompromising central thrust of the work.  It is safe to assume that very few overdubs were performed during the sessions.  What would normally be seen as mistakes and blemishes were left in....

Despite the melancholy and often rancorous vibes, there is kind of nobility and defiance about Tonight's The Night, which for me is central to its appeal - a "ragged glory", to borrow from one of Neil's later album titles.  Some of the dark humour contained in the lyrics helps to encourage this feeling.

Three of the tracks, "Mellow My Mind", "Albuquerque" and "Tired Eyes", are quite similar in style and melody and, astutely separated, constitute the emotional backbone of the album, together with the bookends of the title track and its reprise.

For the unwary I would expect that Tonight's The Night is an awkward listen at first, and in this and other respects there are parallels with the Stones' Exile On Main Street.  However, as a snapshot of an artist's state of mind, and as a slice of raw emotional candour, this album has few equals in rock music.

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