Thursday, 12 May 2016

Neil Young's debut album (1968)

After a hiatus, I am back to listening to the music of Neil Young quite avidly. The authenticity and emotional depth of his work is impossible to ignore for too long. He is one of the most interesting singer/songwriters to study, because of his restless spirit and unpredictability.

Neil Young's debut album, self-titled and released in 1968, tends to be forgotten by the wider music world, in part because it contained comparatively few of his classic or best-known songs. I had even forgotten Ry Cooder's involvement with the record.  Anyway, I recently revisited the Neil Young album in an effort to reappraise it.

The presence of two "superfluous" instrumental numbers, "The Emperor of Wyoming" and "String Quartet from Whiskey Boot Hill", I find a tad mystifying, especially for a singer-songwriter.  While it helps to imbue Neil Young with a certain quirkiness, some might contend that it betrays a shortage of genuinely strong material to put on the record. Perhaps the nature of the track listing was an early indicator of the idiosyncratic and maverick path which the Canadian's solo career would follow?

The overall sound and character of some of the album carries echoes of Buffalo Springfield, which is hardly surprising.  In fact, the tone feels more "Sixties" to me than "70s singer-songwriter".

The one song contained on the album which has endured to a significant degree is "The Loner".  This memorable tune adds real gravitas, and makes the album better than it would otherwise have been. It is one of those dramatic, intriguing Young numbers with an impenetrable aura to it.

Another item in a vaguely similar vein to "The Loner" is "I've Been Waiting For You", which has its own mystique and atmosphere, and even exudes a touch of the psychedelic.

"The Old Laughing Lady" is another song of substance, and is redolent of some of Young's more ambitious and experimental excursions from his tenure with Buffalo Springfield. The influence of Jack Nitzsche is also discernible in the arrangement. Lyrically it would also seem to point the way forward for the songwriter.

One of the other noteworthy compositions to feature here is "Here We Are In The Years", which appears to address issues of "getting back to the country", ecological concerns, the alienating effects of modern life and the pursuit of a simpler, more pastoral existence, themes which were prevalent in much of the rock music being created in 1968. I hear a synthesizer too, which might sound incongruous, but actually works well, and this number has a vaguely "baroque" feel to it.  A certain poignancy and dignity underpin the song, and it quietly qualifies as a minor classic, in my estimation.

The penultimate track, "I've Loved Her So Long", contains some of the hallmarks which would characterize Young's later work, and it is perfumed with zest, things happening. Although an unexceptional song, it is a rather captivating piece of music, with a pleasing presence.

The record closes with "The Last Trip to Tulsa", which anticipates some of the artist's "epic" efforts. The lingering Bob Dylan influence is detectable in the lyrics at least. The earthy nature of the acoustic guitar is a welcome relief - there is not enough of it on the album. Like with some other songs on the LP, though, it is somehow not fully satisfying, as if the artist had not yet found some secret ingredient which would elevate his music to a different plane, emotionally speaking.

The vocals on this record seem to lack authority, and the character and warmth, which we would grow to associate with Young, although this may have been attributable to the mix, or to a lack of confidence by the singer in his own voice.

Neil Young was clearly a formidable talent, and this had been demonstrated by his contributions to Buffalo Springfield. This record contains some glimpses of his potential, but for me it lacks a certain bite and conviction, qualities which were admittedly not slow in emerging on his second solo album. Here, though, things are strangely low-key and even hesitant.  Not a false start, but equally not altogether convincing.

Should we be surprised at how this record turned out, though? 1968 was a transitional year, in the direction of rock music, and in the cultural and political outlook of Western youth. Some of the tension, anxiety and uncertainty of the time is undoubtedly reflected in these songs.

It is easy to forget, too, that this was his first solo effort.  Previously, he had been part of bands. An unevenness is therefore not totally surprising, and it does merit attention as a period piece, and as the start of a wondrous journey. It is folly to try to look for a "pattern" in the man's career. As the world was to discover, Neil Young did not favour simple patterns or easy options, and this is one of the reasons why his body of work remains so important and absorbing.

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