Neil Young has a longstanding tradition of mixing up straightahead
rocking album with his longtime musical comrades Crazy Horse with
various sorts of musical experiments. And every so often, he tosses in
the musical sorbet of a gentle singer/songwriter album. His last
release, the concept album Greendale, was both experiment and a
Crazy Horse rocker. The new one, Prairie Wind, falls on the
introspective singer/songwriter side. It was recorded in Nashville and
both continues and lives up to past acoustic-based classics
Harvest and Harvest Moon.
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
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.