In April 2002, Neil Young released Are You Passionate?, an album-long meditation on life, love and more. Some found the Motown-flavored “You’re My Girl,” written for his daughter, a tad much, while others considered the entire project “muddled” and “aimless.” I disagreed with those sentiments then and still do now. On my old site, in a capsule review, I wrote in part: “Subtitle this ‘the Stax Sessions.’ Neil’s muted, poignant guitar leads Crazy Horse’s Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro and legendary Stax stars Booker T., Duck Dunn and Steve Potts through his most soulful set of songs yet.” About my only quibble with it: the 9/11-inspired “Let’s Roll,” which is a thematic outcast. It would have worked better as a one-off single.
In any event, AYP provided the soundtrack to late spring and summer for me that year. If I listened to it once, I listened to it a 100+ times—often on repeat in my second-hand Dodge Neon, whose saving grace was the CD player. That bluesy guitar tone reverberated through the soul during my hour-long commutes to and from the office.
What many of us, or maybe just me, didn’t know at the time: The heart of the album began beating in November 2000 at the funky Toast studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, where Neil was joined by Crazy Horse (Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina). Over the next few months, they laid down seven songs, with the final session coming on February 9th, 2001. In a post to the NYA Times-Contrarian, Neil wrote that the songs “were so sad at the time that I couldn’t put it out. I just skipped it and went on to do another album in its place.” (The reason for said sadness, again to quote Neil from that same post: “The music of Toast is about a relationship. There is a time in many relationships that go bad, a time long before the break up, where it dawns on one of the people, maybe both, that it’s over. This was that time.”)
Which is to say, three months later, he recruited Sampedro and Booker T & the MGs (sans Steve Cropper), who he’d toured with in 1993, to join him at the Site Recording studio in Marin, Cal. In sessions that May and again in November/December, they laid down 11 songs, including re-recording three of the Toast songs in near-identical arrangements. The main difference between the projects, which both featured Neil’s wife Pegi and half-sister Astrid on backing vocals: Though some of the newer songs explored similar sad themes, others added a little light to the proceedings.
The big surprise of Toast, according to some reviewers and—in that same Times-Contrarian post—Neil himself, is the dexterity of Crazy Horse. Neil and the Horse are known, after all, for what I sometimes call “brutal grace,” aka thud-thick chords and extended jams that just about stop time. But any fan worth his or her salt can point to examples, such as much of Sleeps With Angels, where they demonstrate a deft touch. Which is to say, “Quit” and “How Ya Doin’?” sound much the same here as they do on AYP, where they were renamed “Quit (Don’t Say You Love Me)” and “Mr. Disappointment.” “Boom, Boom, Boom,” on the other hand, is a tad looser (and longer) than its AYP counterpart, “She’s a Healer,” while Neil’s quavering vocal sounds almost as if he’s trying to convince himself that he means what he’s singing. Tom Bray’s trumpet adds a welcome umlaut to both versions.
“Goin’ Home,” the fourth song common to both albums, is the same Crazy Horse recording with the ominous hook, though the AYP version has some Site Recording tweaks added. In the days following AYP’s release, I recall some Neil fans pointing to it as their favorite track off the album; it’s definitely the most stereotypical Crazy Horse track there and here. Of the songs unique to Toast, “Standing in the Light of Love” and “Gateway of Love” surfaced long ago on bootlegs of Neil’s 2001 European summer jaunt with the Horse, as they played both most nights; the former indulges in their brutal grace, while “Gateway of Love” is a haunting lament (“if I could just live my life/as easy as a song/I’d wake up some day/and the pain would all be gone”). Only “Timberline,” about a logger losing his faith, is brand new to longtime fans (or, if not, to this longtime fan).
In short, Toast is bleak and beautiful, downbeat but not dour, a melancholic yet hypnotic wonder. In some respects, it’s a mirror of the aforementioned Sleeps With Angels. He surveyed the state of society on that album, after all, while here he’s surveying the state of his soul. Neil’s guitar is fluid and bluesy, as I mentioned above, and the interplay between lead and backing vocals simply gorgeous. If you’re a hardcore Neil fan, it’s well worth seeking out. Casual fans, too, should find much here to enjoy.