The Times EP
Reprise / Amazon Music
Neil Young has been one of my favourite voices of lockdown – I quickly got bored with live-streamed house-gigs. Zooming in on musicians attempting to heal the world, make it a better place was fine in our first reaches of housebound panic but it felt, for the most part, self-serving and privileged in some cases, annoying and desperate in others. And I know I’m not necessarily going to find favour with people saying that. It’s a stony heart that decides that anyone sharing their gift for free, or minimal fee, is some sort of hindrance or on the take. But I sought my solace in old movies rather than ramshackle musical performances.
Apart from a few favourite music moments. And good ol’ Uncle Neil provided many of those. Perhaps chiefly because I felt that his low-key home-recordings might have happened anyway. They didn’t feel like any sort of desperate bandwagon jump. Neil’s touring plans, like any musician, were put on hold. So he turned the camera on himself and played campfire concerts to stream on his Archives site – he generously took a dive back in through the hits and played a few deep album cuts and even some unreleased material; he certainly served up songs he hadn’t played live in 20, 30, even 40 years. But he’d also roll through the obvious things you’d expect. It was as ramshackle and homegrown as any fan could hope.
So now we have this EP – which arrives in a typically hypocritical and annoying and cantankerously Neil way. You get it via Amazon Music. The man that’s always banging on about corporate evil. It’s recorded on an iPad and is either endearingly half-cooked or embarrassingly warts and all; from the guy always banging on about sound quality and the shitty Mp3 era.
You’ve gotta love Neil. He does what he wants.
This is perhaps closest in feel and tone to A Letter Home – that silly set of covers phoned in literally) on Jack White’s time-machine recording-box. But The Times has more heart – maybe because there are (mostly) Neil’s songs. Maybe because of the actual times. There’s a nice political line through this – Alabama, Campaigner, Ohio – all towering protest songs from Young, here stripped slightly of their anger, at least overtly. Then it’s to Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, to perhaps really spell out the theme and vibe.
Southern Man is in there too.
This is Neil not just entertaining but commenting. That’s what I’ve always admired most about him – he can do both. At the same time. It always feels authentic too.
The new song, Lookin’ For A Leader, a brand new single that is his calmer-sounding Impeach The President. Well, calmer musically. It’s an angry tirade against Trump. One of many. By so many musicians. And will it make any difference? Neil hopes so. I’m sure we all hope so. But it’s an uphill battle sadly.
The thing that I love about this messy, stop-gap EP is that it’s an accurate feel of Neil; it’s not false. It’s not concocted. It’s charmingly lo-fi and this is a setting he returns to throughout his recording career.
The closer here, Little Wing, is gorgeous. That song is having a late resurgence in Young’s career it seems. A near-forgotten gem. Perhaps this rendition is why people are calling this a new version of Homegrown. But really that’s because Homegrown was just finally officially released – and it’s on people’s minds.
As always with Neil – even if you don’t see the point of this, even if you hate it – a) he doesn’t care what you think. And b) he’ll be on to the next thing just as quickly as he can. This, like many stopgap EPs of 2020, exists simply because Neil Young could not tour. No one could tour. But not just anyone could campfire-up a bunch of stone cold classics and make it seem like they were songs he’d just arrived it even as many of them had been in the canon for 50 years.
That’s the magic of Neil Young right there. And some of that magic is right here.
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