Twenty years ago Neil Young embarked on a period of work that saw him apparently trying to run away from himself and his legacy by re-presenting himself in unusual guises. Between 1982 and 1989 he played with an electronic rock band, a rockabilly band, a country band, his old favourite garage band, a blues/soul band, and then solo acoustic. He made a career out of being unpredictable. But sooner or later audiences get to be able to predict this, and in the last decade he's settled down to the old acoustic/electric presentation, with an occasional outing with Booker T and the MGs to spice it up.
So what would you not predict when he announces a solo acoustic tour of Europe? You probably wouldn't predict a 90 minute presentation of all new material: a narrative song cycle that has 'concept album' written all over it, with Neil including spoken-word story-telling sequences of over seven minutes between the songs, looking (from back in Row Q) a bit like Spalding Gray delivering one of his monologues. And this would be to trail a new DVD release. Of course that didn't happen. Except it did.
So, it's brave; it's an intriguing left turn for a 58-year-old singer-songwriter to try something without precedent in his 40-year career; it's a little uncanny. But is it any good? I doubt Neil has reached a final verdict himself. He described the songs emerging by themselves, and said "I try not to think about what I'm doing until it's done."
You can see some of his well-worn themes poking through the storyline. Environment, anti-war, and the standard sprinkling of self-mockery: "That guy just keeps on singing! / Can somebody shut him up? / I don't know for the life of me / Where he comes up with that stuff." But this is not just a new setting for the same old building blocks. The difference is that this is a story, and those elements get mixed up with other stuff that doesn't fit in any pat world-view. It may start out sentimental, but it gets uncomfortable. The devil and the FBI both make an appearance. Two people and one cat die. There's a McGuffin character called Lenore, who owns an art gallery.
Neil has dabbled in narrative songs before, and made two feature-length films in the 70s, but he always seemed to be gripped by a bowdlerised reading of Burroughs and Godard (possibly inherited from his mate, Dennis Hopper), so he could never maintain unity of time and place for long enough for the story to be coherent. This time is different. Not that I know what the story is about. It's a puzzle not unlike Dylan's Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts. With luck that means that you can listen to it lots of times and hear something new each time - I haven't tried this yet, but I will.
Oh yes, and after that Neil came back and played another 70 minutes. This time it was more familiar material, but still an off-centre selection (sadly we weren't treated the extremely rare rendition of Ambulance Blues that Neil played in Dublin last week). He played an acoustic version of Cortez the Killer with dazzling acoustic fills on his guitar, and an unironic Old Man (singing "old man take a look at my life / 24 and there's so much more" when he's 58). But by then my head was full up.
Don't believe me? See these other reviews.Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Reviews on 21 May 02003