Throughout the years, Neil Young has given himself over completely to his muse in whatever form it takes. His willingness to divert midstream can almost seem ruthless, whether it comes to neglecting the feelings of his high-profile bandmates in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, dashing the expectations of label heads looking to cash in on his endless well of talent, adapting new gnarly sounds that threatened to scare away the patchwork pant-wearing crowd, or unleashing the hounds of hell on those who have annoyed him in his lyrics. But one bell he has consistently rung, ever since his early days, is his heartfelt need to warn anyone who will listen about the long-term effects of harmful pollution on our planet. With World Record, his latest with Crazy Horse—the most consistent backing band of his long career—Young and the fellas went back into the studio for a batch of tunes that, at their best, come off feeling like an unflinching and unfiltered plea for our dying planet. When they don’t click, though, the songs just feel unsubtle and unpracticed in their performance and messaging.
For better or worse, Young has never lost steam when it comes to releasing music out into the ether. Whether it’s newer material, or unearthed archival records he shelved due to painful emotional attachments (Homegrown) or musical cold feet (Toast), his entire history is eventually laid out, warts and all. It just takes some time for the puzzle to come together to reveal the full image. With the release of the Crazy Horse-assisted Colorado in 2019 and Barn just last year, the notion that he would give those releases time to breathe seemed ludicrous, given the highs they were able to achieve with longtime collaborator Nils Lofgren rejoining the band, replacing Frank “Pancho” Sampedro. But perhaps what drew the most ink leading up to this release was that legendary producer and bearded cultural zeitgeist sculptor Rick Rubin had signed on to produce. In a recent podcast appearance in 2021 on Rubin’s podcast Broken Record, Young and Rubin even reminisced about a scrapped group of songs the two worked on in 1997 that still might be released one of these days. But in that talk, the two rekindled a desire to work with one another, and now have come through on that promise.
Knowing the naturalistic, back-to-basics touch that Rubin has lent artists like Tom Petty and Johnny Cash, who were looking to recapture some sort of lost magic, and Young’s “turning the amps up as an act of defiance” nature in the studio, you would be right in thinking the two would work together harmoniously. Young and Crazy Horse vacated his converted barn studio in the Colorado Rockies to record the 11 tracks on World Record live to tape at Rubin’s famed Shangri-La studio in Malibu, California. The performances were captured and mixed by frequent Rubin collaborator Ryan Hewitt, with the kind of dry and honest clarity both Young and Rubin have chased throughout their careers. But if there are any faults in the final album, it’s simply that this is only a slightly above-average collection of songs from Young at this stage in his career. The lows plod along like tossed-off thoughts, rehearsed only long enough to record, while the highs mesmerize in ways that only Young can when he’s offered the right combination of space and support.
Lyrically, Young’s mind is very much preoccupied with the rapid decline of the environment. As he just celebrated his 77th birthday this past weekend, his worried view of a future with no clean air to breathe has only intensified. On the gentle opening shuffle “Love Earth,” he cycles through lines telling the listener why we should tend to our planet like he and the cast of the record are building a big “pros” list on a dry-erase board. Though blunt, its messaging hardly seems disingenuous as he thinks back to a time where the “sky was blue” and “the air was clean,” and fears for the mess we are leaving our children.
As also heard on “This Old Planet (changing days),” the disappearing seasons have shaken Young. Here, he offers a sobering observation that many of us on the East Coast have thought in a panic during this unnaturally hot year: “Well, they say the autumn leaves don’t fall in the springtime,” he sings. He never lashes out like he did on Barn burner “Human Race,” only lamenting what got lost along the way and wondering how we can get back. But he has hope for common sense, as he, somehow, called the faulty polling of the midterm elections with “The Long Day Before.” He opines about the media stoking our fears, rather than measuring the pulse of the people: “It’s so big that you can’t see it,” Young sings, “It’s so large that it’s you and me / It’s nothing if not the dream that we have is not coming true.”
When Young and the band turn up the volume, there are certain songs, lilke “The World (is in trouble now)” and “Break the Chain,” that can’t move past the barrel-chested, bluesy framework they are built on. In the past, Young and Crazy Horse would mine this territory to pull out inventive riffs or warped guitar skronks that elevated those tropes out of bar-band territory, but here, it seems like they didn’t have the proper time to marinate long enough to discover new possibilities. It also must be said that Young is having a hell of a time adding pump organ leads to many of the songs here. While it’s a fun addition, it’s sometimes thrown in where it might not be necessary.
However, there are moments like “Walk With Me Now (earth ringtone)” where his unique, towering guitar tones are given ample room to feed back and decay. Best of all is the 15-minute epic “Chevrolet,” which recalls the band at the height of their Ragged Glory jamming. In the song, Young equates the wrong turns he takes behind the wheel to the past we can’t go back to. Through its sprawling runtime, Young and Crazy Horse re-capture the mix of power and unpredictable danger that makes them so formidable as a unit. At times, it feels like it’s all going to fall apart. Ralph Molina’s drums lag and Billy Talbot’s bass drops out at certain moments, but the undeniable chorus and scorched guitar work of Young and Lofgren fill in the unsteady spaces. As you get lost in the track, it feels like you are in the center of one of Crazy Horse’s famous center-stage huddles, nodding along as Young changes the air in the room with his gloriously distorted notes. It’s moments like this that make you remember why Young has returned to this group of players so often over the years. The passion in their playing is more important than any attention to slick professionalism that could threaten to dilute the feeling.
Pat King is a Philadelphia-based journalist and host of the In Conversation podcast at Ears to Feed. He releases his own music with his project Labrador and is a tireless show-goer and rock doc fanatic. He recently took up long-distance running, which he will not shut up about. You can follow him at @MrPatKing.
Revisit a 1991 Young performance from the Paste archives below.