First Impressions: Barn by Neil Young & Crazy Horse

My deluxe Barn box is stuck on a loading dock somewhere out west, despite being ordered on October 23, and the promised high-res downloads didn’t hit my inbox until midway through Friday afternoon. The same shipping issues arose with The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band and past orders from The Greedy Hand’s Neil Young store—such is life in 2021, I suppose. Still, the music is what matters, not faulty shipping tactics, and the album itself can be streamed (in varying degrees of sound quality) from the usual suspects, including the Neil Young Archives. Thus, after logging into work yesterday morn, I strapped on the headphones and pressed play while going about my day.

That first time through, my reaction could be summed up by a single syllable: Eh. The ragged glory of lore, it seemed to me, had been swapped for the frayed cadences achieved by Neil and his Time Fades Away band, the Stray Gators. One’s no less enjoyable than the other, mind you, as Time Fades Away is a great album, but…it’s not Crazy Horse. Still, when the music ended, I did what any self-respecting fan would do: I hit repeat.

The second and third times through, again, my expectations to hear the Crazy Horse of yore mitigated my enjoyment. With Danny Whitten, twin guitars swirled and twirled through and around the thud-thick rhythms laid down by bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. Frank “Poncho” Sampredo was less dexterous than Danny but no less great, with his chords rippling like concentric circles through the soul. In either form, they were—as Neil once told Robert Hilburn of the L.A. Times—the “third-best garage band in the world.” Nils Lofgren, who stepped in for the now-retired Poncho a few years back, is a more precise guitar slinger—one of the best, actually, as anyone who’s witnessed him slay a solo with the E Street Band can attest. But the result isn’t akin to the high-octane epics one expects from a “Neil Young and Crazy Horse” album.

The acoustic-flavored “Song of the Seasons” and “Tumblin’ Thru the Years,” for instance, would’ve been at home on the non-Crazy Horse Comes a Time, Harvest Moon and Prairie Wind albums. The same is true of the Dylan-flavored “Shape of You,” which reminds me somewhat of the electrified “Last Trip to Tulsa” that found a home as the b-side of the “Times Fade Away” 45. And some of the electric numbers could well have fit on various other non-Crazy Horse albums. “Welcome Back,” for example, reminds me somewhat of “Albuquerque” (from Tonight’s the Night) in feel, just as “Don’t Forget Love” conjures the Sleeps With Angels era.

Those were my thoughts after those few listens, at any rate. Now, somewhere upwards of my 20th spin, I’ve left my expectations where they belong—in the past. It’s not the Crazy Horse of yore. It’s the Crazy Horse of now. As Neil sings at the start of “Shape of You,” “This ain’t just some paint by numbers/I gotta be who I feel….” 

That means ramshackle songs that sound less ramshackle the more you play them; they’re actually in keeping with Crazy Horse’s “garage band” ethos, but with acoustic guitars in lieu of electric ones. In some respects, now that I think about it, my Times Fade Away analogy up top is slightly off—as I noted in my review of Colorado, this version of Crazy Horse comes across as a less-woozy Santa Monica Flyers, who backed Neil on Tonight’s the Night and the tour that followed. (The Flyers also consisted of Nils, Billy and Ralph, of course.) Epic guitar workouts are absent, but that’s okay.

That said, some of the electric songs do creak along lyrically, especially when Neil relies on sloganeering to make his points, as he does in “Canamerican” and “Human Race,” or tries to tackle a complex political issue with simplistic observations, as he does with “Change Ain’t Never Gonna.” The album echoes his Monsanto Years album with the Promise of the Real at those moments. Just like the Monsanto Years, however, some fierce playing erupts that makes up for it. “Canamerican” simply rocks. “Human Race” does, too. My advice (don’t listen to me): Listen past the lyrics.

By happenstance, due to the quirks of the free Vox app (which I use to listen to high-res downloads), the Tonight’s the Night album kicked in while I was writing this piece. It’s sloppy, wobbly and woozy, and possesses an urgency that’s missing from much of Barn. (That may be an unfair comparison, I suppose, but don’t blame me. Blame the Vox gods.) Another, perhaps better, comparison is to Bruce Springsteen’s last album, Letter to You, which found him exploring mortality, the power of rock ’n’ roll, and more. It captured the zeitgeist of the moment (at least to my ears), whereas this—at least for me—does not.

That’s not to say Barn isn’t an enjoyable album. It is. Like all his releases since Psychedelic Pill (his last great album, says I), it’s a solid outing that’s home to some sublime moments. It doesn’t supplant any of my Top 10 or even Top 20 albums of the year, mind you, but that’s okay. I still expect to be playing it, on and off, for the next good while. It’s Neil, after all. It has its moments. Some days, that’s enough.

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