Friday, December 12, 2008

Let's hear it for Neil Young

I've been having a bit of Neil Young fest over the past couple of days. This is partly because it's what I do from time-to-time (he's been such a fixture in my life for the past 30 years, narrating the changes we all go through, casting light and perspective on the world we navigate) and partly because I took delivery yesterday of the third of his archive concerts. Called Sugar Mountain (the title of one his greatest songs about growing up), it was recorded at Canterbury house somewhere in the States in 1968.

It's wonderful. Between songs he's funny and engaging and the songs are fragile, gossamer-light flights of wonder. With just a strummed acoustic guitar and his frail whine, he transports the listener to a different place and time.

He's probably one of the handful of truly great singer-songwriters of the rock era. And as last year's Chrome Dreams II indicated, he still retains some edge and flair after more than 40 years in the business. He defines the era in many ways, charting many of the social changes of the past half century - though he tends to have a longer historical range than that often engaging with key myths of American history in an attempt to understand the American present - and chronicling the cost of those changes in terms of relationships and personal dislocation.

He's always been something of a showman. He had his 1971 Massey Hall concert filmed and on the DVD accompanying the release of that seminal gig last year, he intercuts concert footage with contemporary film shot on the ranch he had just bought and to which he makes much self-deprecating reference in his between songs banter. He had an eye on posterity even then. As he narrates the American myth, he also creates one of his own.

Next year he embarks on one of the biggest projects an artist has ever attempted. Volume 1 of his Archive is due to be released. Spanning the decade from 1963 when he debuted with the Squires in Winnipeg, through the classic Harvest (which I'm listening to at the moment), it'll contain hundreds of songs - some not heard before; some played with Buffalo Springfield and CSN&Y. it was the decade that defined the era - and in some ways created the world in which we all live (as BBC Radio 4's recent sound archive series and accompanying programmes on 1968 showed).

Young sound-tracked many of the great changes. I still find myself deeply moved when I listen to Ohio as it brings up so many feelings about hopes of changing the world snuffed out by violence at home and abroad.

Young has never engaged the world with anything less than a fierce honesty - and he does it with wonderful tunes and searing guitars. What could be better than that?

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