The cawing of a crow, the buzzing of bees, the distant howl of a lone wolf.
Is anyone really surprised to hear these sounds on Neil Young’s new live album? Old Mr. Young has been singing about nature and Mother Earth for so long, that he probably felt that it was long past due to invite some of the creatures that have been his muses to step up and perform on one of his records. It’s not a conventional move, but Neil Young has never really followed the straight and narrow path. He’s the guy who despaired at the state of toy trains and bought the Lionel Train Company to remedy the situation. And, when he started to realize the environmental implications of his lifelong hobby of collecting old gas-guzzling cars, he invested millions of dollars of his own money into researching clean fuel alternatives. And by now, everybody has heard about how his despair over the poor quality of today’s music players inspired him to create PONO, his own digital musical platform. So, it’s easy to picture all of the cynics who will write Earth off as just the latest weird move from one of rock’s great eccentrics and won’t bother to give it a listen. It’s too bad, because they’ll be seriously missing out.
And while it’s true that integrating the sounds of wildlife into live recordings from his tour with Promise Of The Real is one of Young’s weirder turns, it’s also one of the more interesting ones that surprisingly works quite well musically. As was previously mentioned, the sounds of nature have always lain somewhere in the subtext of all the music Neil Young has written and sung for the last 50 years. And though the connection has never been expressed as overtly before as it is on Earth, it’s apparent that Young feels we have lost the plot and need a little help with understanding the mess we’re in. Earth is the sound of a man who has lost his patience, is pissed off and realizes that we to have things spelled out really clearly for us.
Not surprisingly, several of the tracks on Earth are extended versions of songs from Monsanto Years, a record that sits comfortably alongside Living with War as the least subtle of his albums. But, like Living with War, an album whose sheer topicality as a polemic against the war in Iraq should have doomed it for future listening, the songs on Monsanto Years have an innate musicality and communicate surprisingly well in concert. Anyone who follows the music press should be familiar with Young’s environmental advocacy and his expressed conviction that time is running out for us to prevent complete disaster. It’s an absolutely sincere position that has alienated more than a few of his old fans. But, if screeds like Monsanto Years were a little too nail right on the head for some people, Earth—even though it features several of the same songs—is more subtle, even metaphysical one might say.
The first thing to clear up is that Earth is no Pet Sounds, and it doesn’t sound like The Beatles’ “Good Morning” complete with roosters and barnyard animals thrown in for sonic effect. It’s not a pastiche or remix of Young’s music with animals playing leads and singing backups as some have feared. And, finally, don’t fear, this is not a Deep Forest type of new age record with pleasing hanging keyboard washes decorated with the sounds of birds and waterfalls. Rather, Earth is a ferocious call out, a love song to the earth and its inhabitants. Other than on a few tracks like “Seed Justice” in which the nature sounds make perfect thematic sense and are heavily featured, the animal sounds are subtly integrated, with the effect that hearing Neil sing against this backdrop doesn’t sound that much different than listening to him outdoors at Red Rocks, The Gorge or at the end of a pier in Duncan, British Columbia.
This might be the perfect time for a confession of sorts. You see, Neil Young, nature recordings and I go a long way back. In one of those rare instances where life imitates art, I got the jump on the Earth album concept about 30 years ago when I was still a university student. My record player was broken, and one Sunday afternoon I was at my parents’ house transferring Young’s Live Rust from vinyl onto a cassette. I was broke, so I decided to tape over an old National Geographic Songs of the Humpback Whale cassette that my brother used for a science project many years ago rather than go out and buy new cassettes that I couldn’t afford. Something went wrong, however, and when I popped Live Rust into the car tape deck, Neil Young’s voice came out of the right speaker, but there was something wrong with the left channel. I could still hear the whale songs. At first, I was pissed off because I would have to re-tape the album, but three songs later, by the time I had driven home, I started to think that the tape sounded pretty good and that Neil and the humpbacks weren’t such a bad fit. Especially on “Cortez the Killer”—the whale’s mournful cries seemed to echo the fate of the Aztecs as they succumbed to the terrors of invasions. Over the next 20 years or so, while driving late at night or on those special occasions when we’d been digging deep into the tickle trunk for medicine and listened to Neil and the whales with the lights off, the connections between Young’s music and nature took on an almost mystical quality. When I told Neil Young’s publicist this story a few weeks ago, he asked me to look for the cassette to send him a copy, but sadly after much scrambling around in the basement, I realize that, like so many other things, it’s been lost to time. I like to imagine the person who has the tape now putting it on and wondering what the hell they’re listening to.
For all of the ballyhoo and concern from the artist that people won’t understand what’s going on, the effect of listening to Earth is actually rather subtle. The music and the way that the sounds of nature are blended speak for themselves and don’t require any explanation. The effect and the emphasis are in no way jarring and eloquently demonstrate that everything in nature is connected and that nothing is separate. It’s not much of a stretch to say that listening to Earth is like ruminating over a long Zen koan. It’s all here, the record tells us. What would you leave out? What is music, and where does it end?
Right. The music! If you were lucky enough to hear Young and POTR on the last tour, you don’t have to be told how good the music is. It runs the gamut from ethereal to blistering. For fans of his acoustic work, there are earthy versions of old songs like “After The Gold Rush” and “Human Highway” that are as beautiful as he’s ever sung. The songs from Monsanto Years like “Wolf Moon” and “People Want To Hear About Love” sound much better and more lived in than they did on their studio counterparts, and diehard fans will love to hear the rarely performed “Vampire Blues” and the blistering 28 minute version of “Love and Only Love” that is Earth’s musical high point.
Over the years, Neil Young has released so many live albums that it’s understandable that many of his fans might question whether they need to purchase Earth. The answer is a big resounding yes. Some fans credit Promise Of The Real with helping Young rediscover and reconnect with what is so good, beautiful and vital about his music. Others offer, instead, that intimations of his own mortality brought about by reaching the pivotal age of three score and 10 make him perform with such conviction. Whatever the reasons, Earth is an engaging, highly credible recording that burns with a fire of its own. From beginning to end, it is brave, uncompromising, cracked up and beautiful. Like the landscapes he sings of, Earth is a gnarly old oak tree of an album that is built to last. Not for saplings or the easily frightened.