I love Neil, but my biggest issue with him lately is that ever since his longtime producer David Briggs died in 1995 Neil has favored a spontaneous type of songwriting and recording that has all but buried any sense of craftsmanship. Neil’s best moments have always felt “off the cuff” while never taking the easy or obvious route.
The intro of “Oh Susanna” sounds like the first time they ran through the song, which it probably was because that’s how Neil likes to record these days. Yes, as it goes on it gets into a good, funky groove. And that’s all Neil seems to strive for in his golden years.
But is that enough? Neil Young has written more gut wrenching, mind blowing, heart breaking material than anybody else in his generation. He’s an old man now, and let’s face it: he’s gotten lazy. At least when it comes to recording new material. Apologists can justify it all they want but it’s become clear that Neil simply does not want to put in the effort to make great records anymore.
Granted, he’s still doing more interesting stuff than any of his contemporaries. Who even comes close? McCartney? No. Dylan? Eh. Leonard Cohen? Maybe.
What’s certain is that Neil Young is continuing his 45 year long tradition of doing exactly what he wants, following that bipolar fucking muse wherever she leads him, consequences be damned. I just wish his muse would encourage him to sit down and write some lyrics. And then read them back and edit them. And not just say whatever pops into his head first because usually that’s pretty insipid. Work on the songs. And work harder.
When Neil was 25 he was able to come up with “Ohio” in twenty minutes, according to legend. Those days are long gone.
Since his latest album Americana contains covers of “classic, American folk songs,” the spotlight on his songwriting will be averted for now. But pay attention to the arrangements and the recordings. Of all the musicians Neil has worked with over the years, the Horse has proven most capable of pulling off the spontaneity. And the more I listen to “Oh Susanna” the more I like its funky charms.
Let’s hope the rest of Americana succeeds as well at rising above the amount of effort put into it.