Another ride through Neil Young’s “Music Arcade”
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Have you ever been lost?
Have you ever been found out?
I love those darkened paths within the long, languid careers of those especially prolific artists. And a frequent destination in the past few days has been Neil Young’s excursions with Crazy Horse in 1996 and ’97. His live album Year of the Horse is among my favorite records he’s ever released, and its one I revisit constantly and can let roll with its anguished guitar jams for hours upon hours. From there, it’s not uncommon to explore the bootlegs that led to that album, including a particularly strong performance on June 4, 1996, at Old Princeton Landing, a bar in Half Moon Bay, Calif., that saw Young and the Horse workshop their new material several times over the spring and early summer that year.
And this path leads back to the source material, Young’s Broken Arrow, an album born out of returning to Crazy Horse after spending most 1995 with Pearl Jam, and recorded in the aftermath of losing their longtime producer David Briggs to cancer. Briggs believed in recording loud, loose and in the moment, capturing the sound as it’s created. As with everything done during this stretch, Broken Arrow adheres to that. There’s real emotion in songs like “Big Time” and “Slip Away,” and that’s punctuated by instrumental passages that are as inspiring as they are untethered to strict formatting.
I was walking down main street
Not the sidewalk but main street
Dodging traffic with flying feet
That's how good I felt
But neither Briggs nor Young live exclusively in the realm of loud, electric exercises. Briggs produced some of Young’s most intimate solo recordings, including 2017’s unearthed Hitchhiker album circa 1975. Young might have had Briggs in mind when he stripped away Crazy Horse’s accompaniment for Broken Arrow’s penultimate track, “Music Arcade.”
It’s a pretty common resident on the mix tapes and playlists I’ve made for myself and friends through the years, and part of that is its status as a “weird song by a well-known artist.” Though still great, putting “Cinnamon Girl” on a home-made compilation never felt as true as digging a little deeper into the catalog. It helps that this song is truly one over which I’ve mildly obsessed. And it’s been a near compulsion to see if I can spread that obsession to another sympathetic soul along the way.
Yeah I'm talking 'bout getting down
Take it easy, there's no one around
Just a mirror and you and me
And the TV sky
It hasn’t been easy to articulate why it hits me like this, though. This is a song I’ve gotten lost in, where the track just repeats and verses blend and swell and the mood deepens until it’s embedded in the psyche.
It’s not unique in that quality — every enthusiast who has invested the time in the words and tunes of an artist owns these moments. But even taking into consideration the breadth of Young’s cannon, this isn’t a song I see discussed a lot. Last night, in bed and in a sputtering attempt to get sleepier, I even looked up “Music Arcade” just to read some thoughts on a song I was — surprise — listening to yet again. And there wasn’t a lot there, at least not within the initial, marketable results that appeared first. It’s a deep discography, but this is a song that’s had more than 20 years to be properly documented beyond the initial reviews of Broken Arrow, which can have its critical consensus summed up as “This Isn’t As Good As Ragged Glory.” When the reviewers give up on an album, there aren’t typically long columns looming for its individual tracks.
When you look in those vacant eyes
How does it harmonize
With the things that you do?
That's how good I felt
But like much of Young’s catalog, this album was a grower. If it wasn’t as instantly resonant as some of his other 1990s records, it had more than enough that would be revealed over time. Even among this group, “Music Arcade” stands out. Young, in a raised whisper, is almost delivering his version of a lullaby, detailing one great moment where he was free of every care in his system, and just how tricky it can be to get there.
There’s more than one side to it. In drawing the comparison to a homeless man wiping his windshield clean, there’s a recognition that this feeling is fleeting, and is always balanced by some deeper anguish bubbling below the surface. It’s the balancing act of living in the moment and recognizing how tenuous the moment is.
And then it’s over. At four minutes and two seconds, it’s on the more succinct side of the songs on an album whose songs lean towards the lengthy (though two — “Changing Highways” and “This Town” — are still shorter). It’s proof, of course, that Young has more than one method of getting his point across, but better still it's an example of how powerful that message can be, even when it’s strummed softly on an acoustic guitar, without even the benefit of a raised voice to push the words through to the listener. As with a number of Young’s songs and albums that have been buried by time and volume, it’s all there, waiting to be found.
I didn’t mean to stay as long as I have
So I’ll be moving on...
Oct. 11, 2018
Email Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org