Neil Young's Prairie Wind

A Track by Track Analysis

Music Features Neil Young
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“The Painter”
Possibly the album’s most important track, this laidback acoustic ballad is a nostalgic portrait of the creative process and a quiet examination of the past, the future, the choices we make in life, the wisdom that comes with hindsight, and—finally—a treatise on loyalty and friendship, even in death. The song lays out most of Prairie Wind’s themes, and sets the record’s pensive tone.

An interesting conundrum to consider when listening to this song—and the album in general—is a TV interview of Young’s I saw a decade ago. It was during the period just after his MTV Unplugged performance and before his Pearl Jam collaboration, Mirror Ball, when the grunge world was buzzing about its Godfather Neil. The ever-evolving artist was carrying on, verbally flipping the bird in devil-may-care, Johnny Cash fashion, talking about how, musically, right now is all that ever mattered to him. It’s all about this project. Forget what came before or after—that was then and tomorrow’s just a distant abstraction. But now, with Young having turned 60 in November, it seems his perspective has taken a 180 from that interview. He’s thoughtfully reflecting on the past and pondering the unknown future. On “The Painter” he sings of the “long road behind” and the “long road ahead,” and of the bandmates, friends and other loved ones he’s lost along the way—people he still holds close in his heart.

I keep my friends eternally, we leave our tracks in the sound Some of them are with me now / some of them can’t be found

“No Wonder”
This dark, heavy-hitting song features a post-chorus acoustic riff that’s rhythmically similar to Young’s CSN&Y chestnut “Ohio.” And the lyrics are right at home on Prairie Wind.

This pasture is green, I’m walking in the sun / it’s turning brown, I’m standing in the rain / My overcoat is worn, the pockets are all torn / I’m moving away from the pain.

In just these few lines Young goes from the green pastures of his youth to the fading browns of the dying grass. Seasons are changing. Young is old now, in the autumn of his life, and the cold winter winds aren’t far on the horizon. Images of ticking clocks appear in the chorus, “No wonder we’re losing time,” Young sings.

In the second verse, the green pastures become “amber waves of grain,” as the song takes a subtle, deliberate turn for the political. He continues, “The grain kept rolling on for miles and miles / fields of fuel rolling on for miles.” It’s a perfect example of how mind-blowing Young can be in his simplicity. We were just talking about aging and now, with slightly altered language, we’ve got the Middle East oil fields pitted against the more environmentally friendly fields of grain fuel; I saw them myself when I visited a close friend in Iowa earlier this year—endless miles of corn. You can get ethanol at the pump in places like Cedar Falls. And I’d be willing to bet that old Farm Aider Young is talkin’ alternative energy sources here. Think I’m stretching? Time’s Josh Tyrangiel recently interviewed Young while riding in the musician’s bio-diesel powered Hummer.

As the song plays, my mind begins trailing after the tangential lyrical breadcrumbs Young has dropped…

Biodiesel’s supporters see it as a relatively clean-burning, renewable farm-grown fuel. Good for agriculture, the environment and our foreign policy. Less reliance on foreign oil=less reliance on human-rights violating dictatorships=more stability in fuel supply=more stability in fuel prices=more economic stability at home. Now I know this is oversimplifying, and that these are highly complex issues, but if a few simple lines in a pop song can get me thinking about everything from life and death to global economics—now that’s what I call songcraft.

And so the next time around the chorus’s “losing time” takes on weightier, more grim connotations. It’s a warm-up for verse three’s “Masters of War” turn:

Somewhere a Senator sits in a leather chair behind a big wooden desk … He took his money just like all the rest.

The song doesn’t quite have the urgency of “Ohio” but Young is getting on in years—he’s less the fiery revolutionary etching in stone the atrocities of a twisted decade, and more the wizened old codger who’s come down from the hills to impart his hard-won knowledge in a time of peril.

“Falling Off The Face Of The Earth”
The tone shifts once again with this sad yet tender song that’s warmed by subtle horn swells and blankets of pedal steel. Written about an answering machine message Young received after he learned he had a potentially deadly brain aneurysm, “Falling off the Face of the Earth” beautifully captures the bond of friends in a time of crisis. And it’s a solemn reminder to make an effort to appreciate the people we sometimes take for granted.

“Far From Home”
Christmassy horns simmer like cinnamon sticks, adding Muscle Shoals inflections that collide with Neil’s California-country sound on this joyous—if bittersweet—song about home, extended family, love of music, father-son bonding and the beautifully naive (and sometimes not-so-naive) dreaming of early adulthood. “Far From Home” is easily the record’s most soulful track. And—along with Elvis tribute “He Was The King”—the most fun, too.

“It’s A Dream”
This quiet, shuffling morning song is resplendent with nostalgic strings. And it’s a love song, too, but not of the “I Want To Hold Your Hand” variety. “It’s a Dream” is about a much deeper love.

I try to ignore what the paper says / I try not to read all the news / and I hold you if you have a bad dream / and I hope it never comes true / ’cause you and I been through so many things together… Fading Away, It’s only a dream, Just a memory without anywhere to stay

Perhaps this cut was written to Young’s wife of 27 years, his kids, or both. It tackles the fleeting nature of life, especially when looking back over the years. Young presents images of childhood, but through the eyes of a parent with a kid who’s all grown up. There’s reminiscing about the grown son or daughter’s childhood, and the song captures—with breathtaking honesty and directness—the feeling of being caught off guard by these intense emotions… when the reality of the time that’s passed (seemingly so quickly) hits you like a ton of bricks.

“Prairie Wind”
A creepy, mystical groove with a heartland twist—as if Robert Plant and Jimmy Page had a séance, co-wrote “No Quarter” with Woody Guthrie’s ghost and put it out on Led Zeppelin III instead of Houses of the Holy. This title track is about Young’s Dad, a once-brilliant sports writer and loving father who suffered from dementia toward the end of his life. Young points out that it’s not only people we take for granted, but our sense of direction, and even our memory itself.

Trying to remember what my Daddy said / Before too much time took away is head / He said we’re goin’ back and I’ll show you what I’m talkin’ about / Goin’ back to Cypress River, back to the old farmhouse

It’s the latest in a long line of Young’s “returning” songs. As much as anything else over the last 40 years, he’s been writing about the healing powers of home, family and personal roots.

Appropriately, wheat fields also make an appearance here; a perfect image to accompany Young’s introspective reaping. Once again he ties life to seasonal cycles and the harvest. He doesn’t use the specific metaphor on Prairie Wind, but listening, it’s hard to ignore the notion that we’re but leaves on a tree—green and vibrant in the spring and summer of our lives, then raging with color in autumn, just before the end (“better to burn out than fade away,” right?). It’s a metaphor just about as old as the human race, but it still works.

(More to come soon on the album's last four tracks, "Here For You," "This Old Guitar," "He Was the King" and "When God Made Me.")

Click here to read Paste's review of Prairie Wind.

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