BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
At this point in his nearly 50 year career, the predictability of Neil Young’s unpredictability is a given. With the fortunate exception of rap and hip-hop, there’s no genre that Young hasn’t attempted, although oftentimes the results of his eclectic experimentation can be less than satisfying. Storytone tends to yield similar results even despite occasional moments of songwriting brilliance. Young’s decision to surround himself with strings on the majority of these cuts is, while admirably ambitious, serves to dilute the quality of the material overall. He used orchestration early on — most notably on songs such as “Birds” and “Broken Arrow” — but here the arrangements are clearly overwhelming, burying the vocals and making them compete for prominence. Given the fact that Young’s strangulated voice is rather tepid to begin with, he sets up a challenge that’s more daunting than daring. Suffice it to say that Young’s credence as a crooner is clearly lacking.
Not that the entire album is cast like a Disney soundtrack or a Broadway spectacular, although that’s the initial impression purveyed with opening track “Plastic Flowers.” In fact, several songs — “Say Hello to Chicago,” “I Want to Drive My Car” and “Like You Used To” in particular — lean towards the blues, basking in big band arrangements and more muscle than that evidenced elsewhere. Still, the fact that Young chose to make the album a paean to the protection of Mother Nature — the obvious outrage expressed in “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” attests to a certain lack of eloquence — means that there’s a singular intent. As a result, the stripped down, unadorned disc of the deluxe set, featuring Young performing those same songs sans the excessive accoutrements, makes for far better listening. “Glimmer,” “I’m Glad I Found You,” “All Those Dreams,” and “When I Watch You Sleeping” fare far better, bringing to mind Young in his troubadour mode circa Harvest, Harvest Moon and After the Goldrush. Consequently, listeners are best advised to head directly to disc two and regard the set with strings as a curiosity and an example of eccentric experimentation best left on the shelf.
DOWNLOAD: “Glimmer,” “I’m Glad I Found You,” “When I Watch You Sleeping” (acoustic versions)