Neil Young crafts his inorganic view of the planet on Earth
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Neil Young’s 2015 was a year of blazing transition. Pushing through personal upheaval, he focused his sights on his latest environmental concern, wrote another batch of songs, recruited a new band and jumped back out on the road.
The results were stunning. Teaming with Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real produced some of the most animated shows of Young’s career. As heavy handed as the message of The Monsanto Years album could be, the songs took on a new life on stage and were augmented by inspired songs from his back catalog.
News of a live album was definitely well received. But Young, in one of his more mischevious moves, also announced that the record — the two-CD, three-LP Earth — would be augmented by various animal and traffic noises. Creating a sound collage as a tribute to the planet is an interesting move, but one that initially threatened to cloud the message and annoy listeners.
The greatest fear — perpetuated by early reviews and from comments by Young himself — was that the animal sounds were going to overtake the music, with cows and frogs and whatever else overwhelming guitar solos, vocals and everything else that had gone into one of the better tours of Young’s career.
Thankfully, that doesn’t really happen. Instead, the animal noises serve as a soundscape, bridging one song to the next. The effect is probably most pleasing on “Country Home,” where the sounds of crows and turkeys seem to create the scenery of Young walking along a countryside property. Traffic noises punctuate the gaps in “People Want to Hear About Love” and crows seem to accent certain lines. Bees overtake the sound as “Mother Earth” comes to a close. Again, all these additions are confined strategically and not chaotically over the songs themselves.
Worries about Young turning the results of a fantastic tour into a joke aside, what’s left is Young sounding as inspired as he has in decades, jumping decades backwards into his catalog and turning back as energized as ever in front of Nelson and the band. Rather than segmenting his catalog as he had in the past — these are solo songs, these are Crazy Horse songs, etc. — anything and everything is up for grabs. “Western Hero” made its first live appearance since 1995 on the Rebel Content tour, “Hippie Dream” was rescued from 1986’s Landing on Water and 1974’s On the Beach gem “Vampire Blues” was pulled out of the mothballs after having only been played once live previously. Promise of the Real offered Young a versatile and energetic band like he’d never had, and he took full advantage of their enthusiasm.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in a nearly 30-minute reading of “Love and Only Love,” which starts with a fury and begins to dive back into the valley around the 12-minute mark for atmospheric journeys aided mostly by feedback and distant backing vocals. It sounds like it’s coming to a crashing coda after 15 minutes, but slowly builds back with hints of Pink Floyd’s “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” thrown in. Finally, as it winds down and out, and after Young thanks Promise of the Real, the crowd roars and the birds and wolves come back, having been held at bay by the band furiously working their own organic magic.
When the last call of a crow and drone of a guitar closes to silence, the lingering effect is ultimately a solid one on the listener. It’s not quite like the euphoric feeling of walking out of the shows, but in its own weird way, it conveys the message at the top of Young’s mind. That he was able to get there without turning off his audience should count as a victory, and Earth can stand as a totem to his journey in 2015.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org