Friday, 14 November 2008

Great Underappreciated or Obscure Albums 5 - YEAR OF THE HORSE by Neil Young & Crazy Horse (1997)

It was Neil Young's 63rd birthday last week, and as such it only seems fitting that I dedicate this post to what may just be his most underrated album, even more so than Trans or Greendale (both great, and unfairly panned, by the way).

Year of the Horse came along during a decisive time in the great artist's life and career. Two years earlier, his producer, mentor and close friend David Briggs passed away. It was just after Young had turned 50, and been indicted into the Rock'n'roll Hall of Fame. Young was coming off a run of three immensely popular albums from the start of the decade (Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon and Unplugged), but already this return to favour was waning, as the fiercly underground Sleeps with Angels and the beyond-ragged Mirror Ball failed to keep up the chart-friendliness. Now, with Briggs gone, there was a concern that the Canadian's muse would follow suit.

To be honest, for those wanting a repeat of the easy-listening fare of Harvest Moon, that disappointed was possibly well-founded. Briggs' last advice to Young was "to get closer to the source", to make the music "purer". For a duo whose mantra had always been "the more you think, the more you stink", this meant stripping down even further the Crazy Horse sound, taking it to its absolute ragged grunge apex. In the studio, this floundered a tad. 1996's Broken Arrow had its moments of elegiac grunge-rock guitar beauty, but for the most part was a disappointing last tribute to Briggs' memory and legacy. Yet, the subsequent sold-out tour would be the basis for what in my mind has to be Young and the Horse's ultimate live opus.

Sure, Live Rust has the hits, and Weld has the volume, but Neil with the Horse was always about so much more than that. And during his Broken Arrow tour, the old master became increasingly dedicated to channeling the earthy, primitive vibe that had always characterised his collaborations with Crazy Horse. Indeed, on 1969's Everbybody Know this Is Nowhere, their debut, the Horse's simple rythm style provided the perfect blank canvas ("boom-boom-thack" drums, repeated guitar chords, plodding bass lines) for some of Young's most soaring musical statements, be it on short, sharp rocker 'Cinammon Girl', the mysterious avant-garde folk dirge 'Running Dry (Requiem for the Rockets)' or the two epic monster workouts 'Down by the River' and 'Cowgirl in the Sand'. I could write a whole book on Young's guitar-playing on those two tracks. It's the stuff that very few of even the greatest guitar heroes have ever achieved, because it channels such a heady cocktail of emotions.

Year of the Horse conjures up this very same vibe to perfection. The track selection (which oddly differs from those featured in the movie -directed by Jim Jarmusch no less- that accompanied its release) is outstanding, mixing re-vamped versions of classic tracks such as 'Pocahontas' and 'Mr Soul' (as a weird psychedelic folk raga for the latter, and a soaring metal ballad for the former), but above all featuring a wealth of lesser-known beauties. And these are great songs to "get closer to the source" on. One thing that characterised the great tracks on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, along with the primal rythym and sheets-of-noise guitar solos, were the lyrics. Oblique and mystical, they seemed to be beamed out of a timeless American folklore. It didn't matter that this was some of the most forward-thinking rock music in America, it felt as unrefined and ancient as if it had been recorded before the very first white men had arrived on the continent.

And the tracks on Year of the Horse keep that very same spirit alive. If anything, it's stronger here, with Young and the guys hitting 50+ and getting wiser, wilier and crabbier. The image on the back cover tells it all: Young leans into his microphone, face lined and grey hair swept all over his face, looking uncannily like the Old Man of the Mountain. The tracks here are long, for the most part, stretched out. Titanic. From the opening cudgeling of 'When You Dance' onwards, this motherfucker never stops bludgeoning, except a bloody brief acoustic interlude, which keeps the vibe going nonetheless, especially on 'Mr Soul'.

For the rest, this is Neil at his grungiest. Scrap that, it's beyong grunge. 'Barstool Blues' is a lesson in guitar mayhem. A riff is repeated over and over for the best part of ten minutes, whilst Neil roars some warped lyrics, including the monumental line "I saw you in my nightmares/but I'll see you in my dreams", as he rips out a non-stop avalanche of distorted, saturated solos. For nearly ten minutes! Sorry, felt I had to repeat that... 'When Your Lonely Heart Breaks' couldn't be more different, yet doesn't break the vibe. A thumping bass note repeats like a Godly heartbeat, deep and loud. Young's voice is pained, and the song -a rarely heard gem- gains so much more potency ten years after it's studio release, in the vastness of a concert hall, with Young the old man gasping hoarsly into his mike. You get the feeling he's seen his fair share of broken hearts, including his own.

The rest of the album is built around three titanic workouts, two from Broken Arrow. 'Big Time' and 'Slip Away' gain so much from the live setting, the former at last achieving its true status as a great lament for the departed Briggs. It's heavy, stripped down, meandering, rock as Briggs would have loved it. 'Slip Away' is a new 'Cowgirl in the Sand' for the nineties, another elegy to a mysterious, fleeting woman, and sees Young tearing at his guitar with manic fury. But it's a mighty, 13-minute-long rendition of 'Dangerbird', the most underrated track off 1975's Zuma that really has my heart pumping and the tears flowing down my cheeks.

It emerges in a tornado of distortion and feedback from the dismembered remains of its predecessor, 'Scattered', the lead guitar breaking forth out of the miasma and launching immediately into surely one of the greatest solos Young has ever laid onto record. The rythm cunches, the guitars twist and entwine around each other and the cryptic, mystical lyrics soar out over the whooping audience, doom-laden and intense. It's one of the most powerful moments in Neil Young's discography, and he could only have achieved it with the Horse. 'Dangerbird' is the sound of Neil Young and Crazy Horse reaching the source Briggs spoke of. Reaching it and letting it loose with full raging force.

On Year of the Horse, by getting closer to the essence of their music, Neil Young and Crazy Horse re-connect with the primeval, cosmic force of their debut, one that would constantly crop up throughout their career, but not with this regularity or intensity, as Young's lyrics often became more "literal" after his smash 1972 success Harvest. In 1969, this band was perhaps the only one in America outside Detroit that truly matched the monstrous psychedelic vibe that the German bands (Amon Düül II, Ash Ra Tempel, early Tangerine Dream) were also letting loose on their audiences. By 1997, a loss of innocence, and an even greater taste for volume turned The Horse into an even more spacey, quasi-doom metal outfit, close to the likes of Boris, Jesu or Nadja, but looser and with that eternal sense of melancholy and melody only Neil Young ever truly achieved.

This is all a pretty long-winded way of saying how much I love Year of the Horse. It's rough, anything but clean-cut, and it stretches out for seemingly eons. But it reaches heights of cosmic grunge/psych/metal/folk meltdown that few albums by a mainstream artist have ever managed. Only Neil Young, and people wonder why I worship the guy!