From the beautifully-understated pedal steel guitar on the opening song, "The Painter," to the remarkable original hymn which concludes the album ("When God Made Me"), Prairie Wind shows that Young is as relevant and as creatively potent as ever.
2005 has not been a good year for Neil Young. In March, he suffered a brain aneurysm that required emergency surgery, and then in June, Young's 87 year-old father passed away. Although his father died after the album was completed, clearly the brushes with death have informed Young's songwriting. "It's such a precious thing, that time we shared together," he sings in a plaintive falsetto in a song called "Falling Off the Face of the Earth." Time slipping away is one of the album's recurring themes.
Young conjures two images of "prairie winds" on the CD. In the title song, it's wind blowing through his father's rural childhood in Manitoba, Canada. Amidst Neil's harmonica, a horn section, and gospel-tinged backing vocals, the song runs through a series of images based on his his father's recollections. "Trying to remember what my daddy said, before too much time took away his head," Young sings.
He also writes of the prairie winds roiling amber waves of grain in the mythic fields of the America where Young has made his home since 1966. In the song called "No Wonder", a powerful meditation on lost innocence, images flow by of birds and brides, of soldiers and Senators, and most strikingly, of Willie Nelson and Chris Rock on the "A Tribute to Heroes" benefit after 9/11.
Lest you think this songs is a humorless affair, there's also "He Was the King." While still fitting into his theme of time and loss, the song is a lighthearted tribute to Elvis Presley.
Prairie Wind marks Neil's 31st solo album. With some of the other rockers who have such amazing back catalogues and have put out albums recently, it's easy to say, "sure the new record is good, but of course, it can't hold up to some of the classic albums."
In Neil Young's case, however, that can't be said.