The Upshot: Ragged and raging live album featuring Promise of the Real, it finds the chameleonic Young at least as concerned with the message as he is the music.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Neil Young has done his share of proselytizing over the course of his career, but never more so then he has recently. Last year’s Monsanto Years found him railing against corporate concerns and their poisoning of the year’s natural resources. Prior to that, his major concerns were focused on the nation’s political quagmire, a topic brought front and center on Living With War and, earlier, his signature song “Ohio” recorded with CSNY. The ravages of drug abuse became the subject of “The Needle and the Damage Done” and other tracks from that darker period in Young’s musical trajectory. Once both a wistful folkie and committed rocker, he’s now a prime example of an artist turned musical chameleon, one who inspires baited anticipation from fans with each new release.
In the case of Earth, Young’s actually on a rare continuum, taking the ecological strains of The Monsanto Years and expanding the theme through live performances of older songs that fit that topic well. Consequently, several signature classic reappear here — a lovely “After the Goldrush” with added ethereal harmonies from Lukas and Micha Nelson, the CSNY outtake “Human Highway,” and “Vampire Blues,” given a particularly scalding treatment that adds context as well as content. Recorded live with his latest backing band of choice, Promise of the Real (who must make Crazy Horse feel as if they’ve been forcibly retired from their former day job), Earth has that ragged, raging feel that marked Time Fades Away, easily the bleakest entry in Young’s extended solo canon.
There is a difference here, however. Despite the live settings, nature sounds — the sound of rain, cows, wind, insects, squawking birds — have been inserted between songs as if to emphasize that need to protect and respect our planet. Yet, even while Young’s rants against the unfair advantages of big business on songs such as “Big Box,” or laments public indifference for these concerns via “People Want to Hear About Love,” the songs are so compelling they actually work as entertainment as well. Indeed, both “Wolf Moon” and “Love and Only Love” are classic examples of essential Young, the former a typically melancholy ballad, the latter, an extended guitar drenched workout similar in scope to “Cowgirl in the Sand” or “Down by the River.”
Young might not appreciate the irony in that last comment. Clearly, he’s at least as concerned with message as much or more so than mere melody. Yet, these songs are striking in a musical sense. Young, never the most dynamic vocalist, is remarkably expressive here, particularly on the latter song which finds him wailing with a harsh intensity he’s rarely exhibited before. Earth may be grounded in anguish, but it’s still an expressive effort indeed.
DOWNLOAD: “Love and Only Love,” “People Want To Hear Songs About Love,” “Human Highway”