By Scott Reid | 10 October 2005
In a recent interview with Time, Neil Young—near the end of a discussion that spent as much time on Kurt Cobain and Rick James as his 31st album (thanks, Time!), Prairie Wind—answered a question about musical longevity by conceding:
“I’m as predictable as a Holiday Inn when you really look at me. I keep doing the same thing all over again. I just make records, and the records are usually some sort of turnabout from the last record.”
If you’ve read Shakey, you already know how modest this guy is, how simple he makes everyone sound, but then you’d also probably also know that he’s right about being predictable. Way back in ’73, touring for Harvest, his first major artistic trade-off (and the most successful of his career, at that), Young would record, live on the road, the stunning but wholly uncommercial and unstable Time Fades Away. He’d follow that with some of the best records of his career (On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night, Zuma), each a commercial bomb. Was each “turnabout” purposely messing with his fans? Or just Neil being stubborn, laughing at us while he maniacally plays with toy trains?
When he’d eventually work his way back up the commercial ladder to get Rolling Stone artist/album of the year with Rust Never Sleeps (if you’ve never heard “Powderfinger,” do yourself the favour), he’d enter the ’80s collective identity crisis and, once again, in his predictable glory, alienate fans that had flocked to Sleep‘s accessibility. His “computer albums,” in part conceived in frustration of not being able to fully communicate with his disabled son (yeah, I know, the most “aww” explanation to some shitty albums you could ever hear), suddenly led to rockabilly, then a really bad country album featuring Willie Nelson, then blues-rock, then, before you know it, “Piece of Crap” (“Tried to save the trees / Bought a plastic bag / The bottom fell out / It was a piece of crap”). None of which have explanations nearly as touching.
This shifting of genres/styles/quality has been one of the few constants of Young’s career, and it didn’t start to lessen with age. Like clockwork, each of his half-way rock album of the last fifteen years has been answered with a mellow counterpart: Ragged Glory/Harvest Moon; Broken Arrow/Silver & Gold; Sleeps With Angels/...um, the Dead Man soundtrack, I guess. So you figure, hey, this guy’s so predictable, let me take a wild guess: a (possibly great, more likely mediocre) rock album after Greendale, right? You press play, somehow ignoring the dead give-away cover art, album and song titles, and instead get…a country album with a gospel choir and a full horn section, recorded in Nashville like Harvest and its beautiful anniversary edition rewrite, Harvest Moon. Very…slick.
Following a record like Greendale, Prairie Wind sounds a little stale. What made Greendale so interesting despite its excesses was the complete unpredictability of the entire concept, no matter how exaggerated it was—the one commonly admirable trait of all his weirdest genre records. It had more than a few problems, but it held together as a record, as an idea, and he hadn’t pulled one off that well since Harvest Moon (the idea: “remember Harvest?”). Prairie Wind isn’t that kind of record. It’s also not the last part of some Nashville/Harvest trilogy despite sharing the same studio, musicians, style, sentimentality, and impending split fanbase.
Some important context: Prairie Wind was almost entirely written and recorded in about a week after Young (well, his doctor, who according to that interview sounds like a lovely man) had discovered a brain aneurysm for which he’d (Neil, not the lovely Asian doctor) soon after undergo surgery. He survives, finishes the record, ends up in the hospital (again) and, not long after, loses his father. The timeline of the ordeal forms this record’s pace: the songs are ordered as they were written—most pre-surgery, some post.
Neil wrote his strongest track since “Red Sun” last. A traditional folk/Cohen take on a gospel piano ballad, “When God Made Me” (aka the song he performed at Live 8) is the spiritual side of his last record’s politicial convictions, and for twenty-five piece crew, it never sounds “preachy” or overly…hymnal (terrible word choice, I know). Young’s voice is as affecting in its incidental timbre as its ever been, his phrasing even softer with age; his lyrics passingly separate faith (Neil: “good!”) from religion (Neil: “...not so much”), never really answering the song’s ten questions as much as rhetorically implying them. Which actually makes the morose, gospel-ish structure rather clever if you think about it….
But it’s really the only song on the album of its calibre, and one of a few that manages to avoid Prairie Wind‘s biggest vice: for an artist that’s made a career of looking forward, the album (yes, given the context and all) is too obsessed with looking back—valorizing it, embracing it, recalling it, reworking it. Not that it can ruin a strong melody; “It’s a Dream” is a well-arranged extrapolation of “After the Goldrush,” and the title track an odd, highly repetitive seven-minute blues-folk epic that sort of recalls “Tonight’s the Night”‘s sincere ramble, save the (unfortunate) full horn section and subject matter. On the other hand, “Far From Home” and “This Old Guitar” are far too conscious of their own sentimentality, trampling any chance of the melody connecting. It’s almost comical at times; he hasn’t laid it on this thick since “Buffalo Springfield Again.”
“The Painter” is everything that’s genuinely good—not ok, if we’re feeling forgiving…good—about Prairie Wind. The guitar playing and lyrics are simple but memorable, the hit-and-miss hooks (the t-shirt slogan payoff isn’t exactly “classic Neil”) anchored by some incredible pedal steel and restrained chorus harmonies. The mid-tempo “Falling Off the Face of the Earth” is even better—the band’s arrangement fitting Neil better than any other song here, backing some of his highest notes in years. “Here For You” sticks to about the same tempo as “Earth,” and the way the chorus flows back into the verse is oddly similar; the lyrics aren’t his finest, but the harmonica is a welcome touch and, once again, Ben Keith pulls out one great steel riff after another, pushing the track over the top.
That compact "good stuff" paragraph might make Prairie Wind seem like a duller record than it actually is. This is certainly no Old Ways, and, not ignoring its problems (“He Was the King”), most of this is still good; Young’s voice, his guitar playing, the arrangements, the lord Ben Keith, Emmylou Harris’ backing vocals (again)—it all sounds terrific and help keep this record at least on par with his last country outing, 2000’s Silver & Gold. It’s also a sigh of relief for thousands of fans that just couldn’t take to Greendale‘s overbearing political mantra or rattling, drop-d tone. Even if it did make some of us—the kind of Neil fan that would still bother to speculate on what comes next, obv—expect his next great personal record, not just a record about personal things; the difference between “Borrowed Tune” and, say, “This Old Guitar” (“The more I play it, the better it sounds / It cries when I leave it alone / Silently it waits for me / Or someone else I suppose”).
Fans that stood by him through Silver & Gold will find it a lot easier than others to forgive the album’s toss-offs and embrace Prairie Wind as the “not bad” album that almost never was, recognizing that a bland step forward for Neil Young is still, you know, a step. And the alternative to that would’ve left one hell of a boring swansong for one of the most interesting rock/folk songwriters alive; it’s almost too unfitting to think about. As is, it can remain another reaction, another one-off, and one of many good-but-not-great records he’s released. Let’s be thankful.