It hasn’t been the best year for Neil Young releases – but that prolific nature continues. In fact that’s more the curse than blessing in 2014 – a patchy, often pointless memoir (that was absolutely and only for the hardcore fans) and the daft Jack White-assisted “Letter Home” from some bygone era where he tried way too hard to do that mischievous Neil Young thing of poking fun with utmost sincerity.
Quite what the aim of Storytone is – beyond pushing his ecological/environmental concerns that line up with one of the main themes of his latest memoir – could be anyone’s guess. Certainly Neil will be back and running with Crazy Horse next year or doing anything else. But after a trek around the globe making much noise in 2013 he spent this year being too pleased with himself and indulging that biggest worry – the Neil Young Album of Po-Faced Folly. And he did it not once but twice. After A Letter Home’s manufactured ultra-lo-fi absurdity Storytone sees Young backed by a 92-piece orchestra. This is about Young the singer. That beguiling bleat endorsed by small surges of strings and pretty colours as he hopefully sings warnings about protecting dams and standing up to oil.
He’s been singing these songs since the late 60s, but when he groups a collection of them together it’s almost always a worry.
The relief with Storytone comes when you purchase more rather than less – just another of the strange dualities in the perplexing Neil Young story.
Storytone’s orchestrated versions come across like some weird, relentless and totally unnecessary musical, Greendale without Crazy Horse’s chug – but the “bonus” disc of Young simply singing the songs, his own minimal backing, takes them back to the context we’re used to. Now it’s just an average/okay Neil Young album with a few glimmers of hope. It’s as if the material from This Note’s For You was recorded for 2014’s version of After The Gold Rush. And though there’s some cloying and annoying lyrical clunkers it’s ultimately something you can handle. (We’re used to it) It’s cheesy – like the worst syrupy moments of Harvest Moon but it’s not as stubbornly-bonkers as when he stands up to front an orchestra for an album-length fully-serious-joke.
His audience usually allows him too much stumble-room, knowing that part of the charm is letting him find his own way back on track.
I look forward to hearing Neil Young in 2015. Something…anything…