In a recent interview with the San Antonio Express (paywalled, but quoted over at the estimable Thrasher’s Wheat blog), the artist and musician Micah Nelson, son of Willie Nelson and currently touring with Neil Young and Promise of the Real, mused on the uncanny knack that Neil Young albums have of appearing in people’s lives just when they’re most needed. It’s an interesting observation and one which resonates with some of my own life experiences. While the ubiquity of platinum-selling albums like After The Goldrush and Harvest meant those particular records would be likely to find you sooner or later, others – On The Beach, Zuma, Ragged Glory – have, for me, definitely turned up at just the right moment. Sad to say it’s been a while since that happened, long enough that I haven’t felt the need to update the Neil Young playlist on my portable digital music player for a long time.
That changed with 2015’s The Monsanto Years: Neil was back, amp turned up to twelve, and he was angry. The youthful and equally loud Promise of the Real (PotR) made the ideal collaborators for the project while Neil’s lyrics matched my own preoccupations with humanity’s impact on the planet, the alarming control-freakery of neoliberal ideologies and the widening inequalities underpinning every aspect of society.
Sure, The Monsanto Years had its flaws but its strengths far outweighed any perceived weaknesses and I’ve not played a Neil Young album this much in, well, years. And I’d probably have been happy enough with that – I mean, the guy’s not a teenager any more and, let’s face it, nobody could have blamed him if he’d decided to spend his seventies coasting along on a succession of ‘greatest hits’ tours and re-releases like many of his contemporaries – but no. Instead, he took PotR out on the road in America for a string of gigs which more than proved he still had what it takes, before disappearing into the studio with the recordings to assemble a live album unlike any other.
98 uninterrupted minutes long, EARTH flows as a collection of 13 songs from throughout my life, songs i have written about living here on our planet together. our animal kingdom is well represented in the audience as well and the animals, insects, birds and mammals actually take over the performances of the songs at times. [source]
While it’s evident that those live recordings have been extensively worked on in the studio, Neil’s musical vision is retained, with the post-production overdubs and remixes bringing out the power and intensity of the gigs. It’s not the first live album he’s made where the recordings have been worked on in the studio later – Rust Never Sleeps springs to mind as another example – but the post-production on Earth is more radical by far, and the original working title of Warning: Contains Modified Content neatly encapsulates both the studio enhancements as well as the album’s central thematic concept.
The field recordings of the natural world which appear throughout the course of the album, between and even during songs, add an ambience which is entirely appropriate, given the environmentally focused themes of Earth, adding atmosphere and depth without distracting the listener. However, I’m still not totally convinced by the overdubbed backing vocals of the Vanilla Singers. Neil explained his reasoning for their inclusion in an interview with Billboard as a result of wanting “a very commercial-sounding group” of “really great singers to augment the corporate harmony of some of the songs – the brands and everything”. And, while I completely ‘get’ that, their contributions are just a bit too high in the mix for my taste; in particular, I find the arrangement of ‘People Want To Hear About Love’ almost physically uncomfortable to listen to – but perhaps that’s the point. Elsewhere, the intermittent application of pitch shifting (autotune) to certain key words and phrases underlines how insidiously digital technology has become seamlessly integrated with organic life – and you don’t need a degree in computer science to see the conceptual similarities between the gene-splicing techniques of GMO manufacturing and copying/pasting a sample of the flugelhorn solo from the original multitrack tape into Earth‘s remodelling of ‘After The Goldrush’.
Of the thirteen songs, only one – ‘Seed Justice’ – is new, although it’s featured prominently in the Rebel Content Tour setlists (initially under the working title of ‘I Won’t Quit’) since its live debut in September 2015. Four are drawn from The Monsanto Years, with another three from Ragged Glory (1990). The remaining five cover a sizeable part of his musical career, from After The Gold Rush (1970) to 1994’s Sleeps With Angels. The inclusion of this older material underlines the point that environmental concerns have long been a concern of Neil’s and anyone in any doubt about the continuing relevance of his socio-political commentary need look no further than ‘After The Gold Rush’, where the simplest, subtle rewording of one line adds a whole new resonance:
Look at mother nature on the run in the twenty-first century
Likewise, it’s difficult not to listen to the world-weary, acoustic ‘Human Highway’ (Comes A Time, 1978) without musing on the unspoken horrors surely experienced by many of the displaced millions currently on the move, around the world, fleeing conflict, natural or man-made disasters or, increasingly, the adverse effects of humanity’s impact on the environment.
Similarly, the grungy ‘Hippie Dream’ (Landing On Water, 1986), seems particularly prescient in its pointed description of the eradication of the Woodstock generation’s naive optimism by techno-evangelism (nowadays manifesting as corporate agri-business). Those same multinationals, unsated by the obscene profits made from the extraction of fossil fuels, have now turned their attention to the monetisation of food production, regardless of the damage done to the poor and the vulnerable, and are the focus of Neil’s lyrical ire in newer songs like ‘Big Box’, ‘Monsanto Years’, as slow-flowing as a polluted river, and the hard-rocking ‘Seed Justice’.
Even an older song like ‘Vampire Blues’ (On The Beach, 1974) – reworked as a low’n’slow, snake-hipped, swamp-rock holler – still seems to foretell the petroleum industry’s massive exploitation of the planet and the proverbial whirlwind we’re all reaping now as a consequence.
Nevertheless, the embers of those 1960s ideals still glimmer with the faint hope that there’s still time for humanity to find some sort of salvation, if not redemption, through a return to finding meaning and value in the simpler things of life, without needing to attach a price tag to everything in nature. In this context, the gentle, acoustic reverie of ‘Wolf Moon’ is a fine example (and perhaps a nod to those nostalgists who maintain that Neil peaked creatively with 1972’s Harvest), while two of the three tunes from Ragged Glory – the downhome, barnyard stomp of ‘Country Home’ and ‘Mother Earth’ (here performed solo by Neil accompanying himself on harmonica and an antique reed organ, with backing vocals and wildlife samples added later) – offer pointers to a better way:
Respect Mother Earth
And her giving ways
Or trade away
Our children’s days
But it’s Earth‘s closer – and the third track from Ragged Glory – ‘Love And Only Love’, that perennial crowd-pleaser of Neil’s live performances (here in all its sprawling 28-minute glory, with the Vanilla Singers’ gospel harmonies applying a little balm to the blazing firestorm of guitars) which really makes the point that, in the end, it’s up to all of us to work together if the seemingly inevitable environmental apocalypse is to be averted:
Love and only love will endure
Hate is everything you think it is
Love and only love will break it down
Love and only love…
Earth is a staggeringly well-realised project of a huge scope and an immersive intensity. Lyrically, it tackles the various, related environmental themes with the directness which is Neil Young’s hallmark as a writer, while the music is a relentless, gathering storm of anger, ablaze with incandescent guitars, with the occasional more reflective, downtempo number offering some shelter from the storm. The fiery, apocalyptic visions are tempered with hope for a better world, and the interweaving throughout of overdubbed field recordings of wildlife is a poignant reminder that it’s not only the future of humanity that’s at risk. Only time will tell if it truly is his best album yet, but one thing’s for sure: to paraphrase Micah Nelson, it’s a(nother) Neil Young record that appeared in my life just when it was needed most. Some people want to hear songs of love, some want to hear about “the corporations hijacking all your rights”: either way, Earth has everything you need.
Earth is out now via Warner Bros.