The Music Box's #10 album for 2003
First Appeared at The Music Box, November 2003, Volume 10, #11
Written by John Metzger
If thereís one thing thatís been consistent throughout Neil Youngís career, itís his knack for finding ways to challenge both himself and his audience. His latest album Greendale is just such a project. Heís always managed to work into his set lists a significant amount of unfamiliar material, but on his most recent tour, he caused all sorts of controversy by debuting the song cycle in its entirety without interjecting anything from his back catalog. While this was frustrating to some, it was also a necessity, for Greendale is a "musical novel" of epic proportions, and it must be heard as a complete suite instead of as individual pieces.
Since then, much has been made of the story, and boiled down to its barest essence it revolves around a murder that takes place in the fictional town that grants the collection its title. Thereís Carmichael the police officer, his new bride, his mistress Lenore, and his killer Jed Green. Thereís Satan, who lives in the county jail waiting for fresh meat to taunt, and itís he who drove Jed to kill Carmichael. Thereís Earl Green, a Vietnam veteran-turned-artist, who sells his soul to achieve financial success, finally landing his paintings in Lenoreís art gallery. Thereís Grandma and Grandpa Green who are forced to flee their homes when the media comes to interview them about Jed, and thereís Sun Green, the daughter of Earl, who has a deep concern for the fate of the world and runs off with Earth Brown to save the Alaskan wilderness. Detailed as this may be, it is simply a superficial examination of the album, and one must dig a little deeper to understand why Greendale is so special. Yes, the storyline is extraordinarily convoluted, but if one steps back and scrutinizes the song cycle on a much broader scale, one soon realizes that the themes that pervade the project give it far more focus and grant it far more insight than is currently being attributed to it.
If anything, Greendale expands upon the concepts that have served as the basis for Youngís music throughout his career: the notion of peace and love as a guiding force, a concern for the environment and a need to protect Mother Earth, a belief in true freedom, and the rays of hope that come from the next generation. Even his last outing Are You Passionate? shared these ideals. Taken in its entirety, it cried out to be a catalyst for change, though that was largely lost on those who heard Letís Roll as some sort of rallying cry for war as well as those who just couldnít accept the burning Memphis soul that Young explored with Booker T. Perhaps thatís why Young followed up that effort with such a blatantly conceptual piece; it was the only way truly to be heard.
If Letís Roll was his gut reaction to the attacks of September 11, then Greendale is his thoughtful condemnation of the Bush Administrationís response as well his horror at what America has become. Indeed, Young attempts to tackle all of the countryís problems, laying them bare within a 10-song, 80-minute tale, and if he bites off more than he can chew, thatís only because there is so much that is currently wrong that anything less just wouldnít suffice. Leave it to a Canadian to point out our own foibles, but itís hard to quibble when Young is so accurate in his assessment.
Turning the accompanying music into a soundtrack for his vividly told story, Young wisely keeps matters simple so as not to distract from his tangled web of metaphors and symbols. Not that they are obtuse; in fact, they are quite the opposite. But buried within more complex arrangements, the meanings are bound to be overlooked. Just in case, however, Young has provided a wealth of additional information via his website, included (as part of the package) an acoustic representation of the album via a concert film, and released separately a movie that tells the same tale. Heís not taking chances that his opinions will be misunderstood or that his viewpoints will be glossed over entirely.
In essence, the characters of Greendale and their situations, allow Young to have a dialogue with his fans about the state of the world without sounding preachy. During Leave the Driving, he comments on the drug war and the governmentís misguided priorities. Within the context of the novel, this song is about Jedís killing of Carmichael, but Young tags the tune with a greater meaning when he sings: "Meanwhile across the ocean/Living in the internet/Is the cause of an explosion/No one has heard yet/But thereís no need to worry/Thereís no need to fuss/Just go on about your work now/And leave the driving to us."
It echoes the words of the Bush Administration in the wake of the terrorist attacks when Americans were told not to fear, just to continue working and shopping. And, when he adds, "Weíll be watching you/No matter what you do/And you can do your part/By watching others too," the song drives home the notion that instead of solving the problems plaguing the country, the government has turned upon its own citizens, inviting them to spy on one another.
There are many other issues ó pollution, ever-expanding debt, the power problems in California and the subsequent gubernatorial election, religious wars, and the current state of the media ó that drift through the drama as it unfolds, adding layer upon layer to Youngís opus. In the end, however, it all boils down to the corruption and greed that run rampant through Western civilizationís union of big business and government as together they conspire to rape the planet while the news focuses on the inane, simply because it achieves higher ratings. Indeed, Greendale may be set in California, but it could be anywhere in America. Itís a potent concoction, largely because it rings so true. One only hopes that the farmers, the hunters, the fishermen, and the loggers will rise up and realize that mass depletion of our resources is not a wise long-term strategy and that enough Sun Greens will head to Alaska and take a final stand against the big oil companies setting their sights on destroying Americaís last great wilderness area. It may be the final battle in saving the planet, and if it is lost, it very well could be the end of us all. So, join together. Be the rain. Cleanse the planet. And remember: "A little love and affection in everything you do will make the world a better place with or without you."
Of Further Interest...
Greendale is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2003 The Music Box