Good ole, weird ole Neil – he’s nothing if not that happy-hippie that’s forever ornery-seeming, wilful and whim-following, he’s a bag of contradictions – so it makes sense, as only it could in Neil’s world, to give up a life-long love of marijuana smoking and then release a live album with studio overdubs, autotone and animal noises to replace the crowd.
Fear not, Earth isn’t ever quite as weird as any press-release or trailer-teaser will make it feel. You sit down with this on the cans and it sounds…well, like a Neil Young live album. Better than that, it sounds like a good Neil Young live album.
His connection with Promise of the Real allows him to channel elements of Crazy Horse and the International Harvesters and most of the other bands he’s sat in with; it means he can go from the Ragged Glory gems (here it’s Country Home and a brutally monumental 28-minute album-closing rendition of Love and Only Love) to rarities in his live sets such as On The Beach’s Vampire Blues to the acoustic moments – including here faithful and lovely versions of After The Gold Rush and Human Highway to, of course, the pick of the crop from the current material.
The Monsanto Years was a better record than its prosaic title and stubborn theme might have suggested but even if it wasn’t great – and the gap is widening between truly great Neil Young albums – the cherry-picked highlights sound as blisterningly good, here, as any in-form Neil Young moments.
People Want To Hear About Love in particular feels as close as 2016 Neil can get to 70s-era Crazy Horse Neil or end-of-the-80s “comeback” Neil.
There are moments, across the nearly 100-minute double-album where you’ll laugh at the absurdity of hearing buzzing insects and braying animals, but it’s also kinda easy to get lost in it, as is the way when Neil Young’s guitar is swirling and churning.
The after-effects, a choir added to some songs, a couple of bits of timed/placed autotune, might stick out to some and feel forced and seem silly, but in the scheme of Neil Young’s wide world of music they are not the weirdest – or worst – things he’s done. Not even close.
To hear him in this mode, where he’s still thinking conceptually, still riding with the wind – aiming to live and play live in the moment, to harness that energy at that particular time for that particular time – is to be reminded of the brilliance around his stubbornness. And the (slight) absurdity of it.
In a long line of live albums from Neil Young this one actually comes out near the top. Which isn’t what I expected to say about a Neil Young album from 2016 that features animal noises in place of the human audience, and a setlist chosen to adhere to the ecological theme that has always been in his work but is the current focus.
Fairweather fans will skip this, as they’ve skipped many, and that’s fair enough, but there’s no reason to fear this album, to be nervous going in. You can’t always say that about a Neil Young album. And the conditions around this one give you every reason to not trust him. The end result feels familiar, comfortable and has him singing and playing as well as he has. That band, too, effortless. So good at slotting in, serving it all up. You can certainly trust them. They’ve got Neil’s back.
In the end this feels like a sequel/flipside to Weld – where that was about destruction, war, anger and channeling those energies this is about a hope (and so much hope lost) for quite the opposite.