|Chrome Dreams II
In the same way that American Stars 'n Bars is remembered as the Neil Young album with "Like a Hurricane," this "sequel" to the canceled 1976 album that AS'nB replaced is destined to be remembered mainly for one track, "Ordinary People."
This song has an especially fascinating backstory. It first surfaced near the end of Young's 1988 tour with the Bluenotes, where it came as a shock: Midway through a set full of throwaway R&B numbers, he hit you with a churning epic. The song quickly disappeared (except on bootlegs), a lost masterpiece - and something of a Holy Grail for collectors, since it was played only about a half-dozen times.
Now, 19 years later, here it is, almost 19 minutes long. New recording? Unbooted/retouched '88 studio session? Neil isn't saying, but it's slightly less intense than the old live boots - and 5 minutes longer, making it his longest studio track ever. Yet it remains a classic, with its sweeping narrative, mesmerizing chorus repetitions, and a pair of vintage, high-distortion guitar breaks. And since the horns and keyboards are integrated seamlessly into a Crazy Horse-like setting, it doesn't sound like any previous Young epics. While the lyric is intended as a fanfare for the common man, there are enough plot twists and left-field lines to keep you guessing. (Try to imagine Springsteen or Mellencamp getting off a line like "Some are saints and some are jerks.") It's the same mix of populism and cynicism that he attempted on the Greendale album, but here it's carried off beautifully.
And the rest of Chrome Dreams II? Good enough to hold "Ordinary People," and a fairly strong Neil Young album without it.
It's his first since Freedom that doesn't stay in one musical groove - though it does stick with familiar territory, from the opening "Beautiful Bluebird" (which would sit equally comfortably on Harvest or Harvest Moon) to "Ever After" (on which the studio band does a good impersonation of Booker T. & the MG's) to a trio of Crazy Horse-style tracks (which don't feature that band's whole lineup, but drummer Ralph Molina gives the required majestic plod). A second epic running nearly 15 minutes, "No Hidden Path," is a standard-issue electric workout - which is a good thing indeed, and Young gets a double edge by layering a haunting chorus over the closing guitar break.
Save for "Dirty Old Man"(a fun, throwaway rocker that can be filed next to "Piece of Crap"), Young is clearly aiming for a major statement - and it's not the kind of statement he would have made in the 1970s. This is the closest thing he's ever made to a religious album, although the testaments to faith and devotion are kept nonspecific. "Shining Light," "The Believer," and "Beautiful Bluebird" all have a maybe-religious, maybe-romantic quality that recalls his pal Bob Dylan's "I Believe in You." This is, in fact, exactly the subject matter you'd expect from someone who faced a brain aneurysm two albums ago and made the summing-up statement Prairie Wind before getting another chance.
Yet just when the album seems easy to pin down, Young hits you with the closing "The Way." On the surface, it fits in conceptually with the rest of the disc, but it's also completely wrong: That children's chorus is just too cloying, the song is too long and naggingly repetitious, and the tack piano is downright creepy. So did Young see fit to putting an all-time clunker on the same album with his greatest song in decades? Or is he just invoking the tradition, which goes back to his solo debut, of closing a peak album with something willfully weird? I vote for the latter.
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