I am a sentimental person, and sometimes this clouds my judgment. I have loved and admired Neil Young’s music for more than 40 years. His songs have enriched my life more than I could say. There aren’t many topics from pot to the pipeline on which we disagree. If I were writing to recommend him for The Order Of Canada, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, hell, even for a Nobel Prize, I’d have no trouble composing something. But, this is an album review of Storytone and not an assessment of his overall artistic contribution to popular music. And, it’s disappointing to admit that for all its sincerity and clear-headed delivery, Storytone doesn’t sound all that remarkable. Like some other Neil Young albums, it presents a conundrum of brilliant moments juxtaposed with toss-offs that are almost completely devoid of any real musical interest.
If that sounds harsh, it’s not intended to be. I’ll be the first to admit that Neil Young’s vocals are astonishing as he breathes life into every phrase he sings on Storytone’s two discs. Nearly 50 years into his professional career, his voice is still a pure instrument, ethereal, direct and emotionally precise. The problem with Storytone lies within the songs themselves. Again, it’s not a case of intention or subject matter; who could disagree with the sentiments expressed on songs like “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” Still, I couldn’t rid myself of the nagging feeling that “Natural Beauty” from Harvest Moon and “Rockin’ in the Free World” from Freedom are both better songs that cover similar ground. As far as writing topical material goes, the often maligned Living With War from 2006 featured lyrics that are far more abrasive, topical and biting than anything he’s serving up here. It’s a tough job writing anthems, and sadly, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” for all of its noble sentiments is grounded in clichés that all of the sincerity in the world can’t leap over and turn into art.
It’s not surprising that the subject of love both old and new dominates the lyrics in Storytone. After ending a 36-year marriage, it would be uncharacteristic of Neil Young not to ruminate—at least metaphorically—on the way his life has changed. For his more forensic fans, there’ll be a lot to dissect and discuss in the lyrics, and the online world is already heavily into deconstructing every possible permutation of his new lyrics. This kind of obsession, of course, underlines so many of the problems with our current celebrity-focused culture, so that even if Neil Young had chosen to create an album about climate change, people would have been looking for clues about his private life inside of the lyrics. But, Neil Young is an artist who has always worn his heart on his sleeve, and he’s attracted a fan base that has emotional expectations of him that are perhaps unfair. Personally, I prefer to let Young sort it all out himself, and if he can write good songs—like Bob Dylan did with Blood On The Tracks and Desire—about the dissolution of his marriage, the subject is justifiable, but no one needs to be reminded of how many bad “break-up” albums there are already out there.
The two songs that really stand up on their own as solid pieces of work are “Glimmer” and “Like You Used To,” and they suggest that all hadn’t been well on Young’s ranch for some time now. With these two songs, he perfectly blends personal expression with a high degree of musicality and craftsmanship. They are certainly the best tracks on the album and should have a life well beyond the topicality of their lyrics. Thankfully, Young never muckrakes or casts blame for his choices as say Bob Dylan did with “Idiot Wind.” It’s important to remember that Dylan was in his 30s when he wrote those scathing lyrics, and Young has had nearly 70 cycles around the seasons to get a grip on the changeable nature of life, love and affection. There’s a lot of pain embedded in the lyrics as he considers the ties that bind and the many old habits that must have died hard, but there is also the admonition that life is short and that there’s nothing to do but keep moving ahead. The fear, trepidation and ultimate gratitude for the presence of new love is most beautifully expressed in “When I Watch You Sleeping,” which may or not be about Daryl Hannah. It doesn’t matter. It’s a very good song, blessed with a lovely uplifting melody and picturesque natural imagery and rhyme.
Throughout Storytone, Young is at once absolving himself of the complexities of blame and remorse, while all the time still feeling them. What is so striking is that the lyrics are so bare and unapologetically whimsical for a man in his late 60s. But, honesty doesn’t always result in great music, and this is a music review.
Too many of the songs on Storytone, such as “Plastic Flowers,” are almost great, but are brought down by awkward rhymes and distractingly sloppy lyrics (yes, I know this is Neil Young we’re talking about) for anyone to consider them taking a place alongside the artist’s best works. It’s an understandably tricky situation for musicians like Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Neil Young who continue to create new music well beyond the retirement age for conventional workers, which has made comparisons to work they produced during their—and their audience’s—prime inevitable. While it may not be fair to compare Young’s earlier albums like After the Gold Rush or On the Beach with Storytone, it’s also important to consider that Young hasn’t been aimlessly spinning his wheels for decades like some of his peers have. Greendale and Prairie Wind are both very solid albums from the new millennium that are fairer sources of comparison, and unfortunately Storytone isn’t nearly as good as either of these.
Musically, the album is also a mixed bag. In the barest sense, most of the melodies on Storytone’s 10 songs are very similar to ones we’ve heard before. It’s understandable that over time artists develop their “sound” and it must become harder and harder to create anything truly new within it. Certainly, the most innovative thing about Storytone is its presentation, with each of the album’s 10 songs recorded in acoustic and fully orchestrated versions.
Of course, Young has been experimenting with symphonic music since 1972 when he recorded “A Man Needs A Maid” and “There’s A World” with the London Symphony for Harvest. It’s an approach that works well on some of Storytone’s tracks and does nothing at all for others. When it succeeds as it does on the orchestrated version of “Glimmer,” I’m reminded of the wonderful records that Frank Sinatra made with Nelson Riddle in the ‘50s. The sound is dense and textured and completely meshes with Young’s vocals. On “Say Hello To Chicago,” Young brings it all together with a performance that would have done Count Basie and his orchestra proud. But, too many of the songs don’t benefit from the orchestration, and all the instruments have the feeling of camouflage or window dressing. A more toned-down approach such as he used on Prairie Wind may have worked nicely on some of the songs. On that album, he seemed to intuitively know which songs would be improved with strings and horn sections and which would benefit from a more stripped-down approach. No decisions of that kind were made here, much to the detriment of the overall effect of the album and its songs.
If Storytone was Neil Young’s first album in a decade, there may be cause for concern and its flaws and eccentricities would be more upsetting, but he’s never been an artist who’s wanted to drop out, woodshed and carefully plan his next move. Young and his music have always been about “feel” and taking risks, whether they’ll be popular or not. Maybe this is the first of several orchestral albums, but it’s just as likely his next release will come from somewhere entirely different and that the songs from Storytone will be dropped for a while to languish in the dust created by his next obsession. Who knows? For all of his legendary past, Neil Young’s best music could still be ahead of him and his next record will be the one everybody’s been waiting for.