Chrome Dreams II
Douglas Heselgrave's #9 album for 2007
John Metzger's #18 album for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri November 16, 2007, 07:20 AM CST
If Neil Young reads his own press, he must be out there, somewhere, having a good laugh. His new album Chrome Dreams II is the sequel to a record he made in 1977 but never released, and it is suffering a deluge of bizarre analysis that is every bit the equal of the weirdness that characterizes the set’s overriding concept as well as the songs themselves.
Don’t believe what has been said about the effort. Chrome Dreams II is a gloriously eccentric sonic blast from one of the odd, elder statesmen of rock. While it’s neither Harvest nor Rust Never Sleeps, and although it isn’t nearly as cranky or indignant as Living with War, it is an intriguing (and often beguiling) new chapter in an ever unwinding musical travelogue through the heart and brain of Neil Young.
Throughout Chrome Dreams II, Young trots out the usual suspects and characters — well-worn pickup trucks, burnt-out hippies, opportunists, scoundrels, and dirty old men — as he gives listeners a guided tour that follows the directions in which his neurons have been firing of late. At times, it’s a bumpy ride. The view out the window is erratic, and the language and musical landscape are so idiosyncratic and unquestionably of Young’s making that one will either jump off at the first bend in the track or ride joyously all the way into the station. Chrome Dreams II draws a definitive line in the soil, and the listener is left with no choice but to cross it or retreat. Nobody who hears the effort will straddle the fence, hovering, hesitating, and waiting for the next note. Chrome Dreams II is an all-or-nothing proposition that will — to borrow a phrase from the prairie lexicon that Young inhabits — separate the wheat from the chaff.
On the surface, Chrome Dreams II is a quintessential Neil Young album. There are slow, acoustic songs replete with heartfelt harmonica and lap steel, and they feature lyrics like "When you hear that rooster crowing in the dawn/In the dawn/There’s really no way of knowing/What goes on/What goes on." Then, there are the grunge fests, which feature layers of thick, swampy guitar that churn around Young’s latest diatribes against corporate society. All of the parts are there, from hippie anthems to disgruntled, old-man rants. Yet, ever the grumpy outback jester, beneath the tidiness of the album’s parts, Young has released another effort that manages to defy expectation and twist convention.
Despite accusations to the contrary, it’s hard to picture a committee of suits, armed with blackberries and spread sheets, crowding into Young’s boxcar to run through Chrome Dreams II’s sequence of tracks. What coterie of young executives would give the go-ahead to such a tripped-out and bizarre collection of songs and assertions? Chrome Dreams II is simply too weird, too idiosyncratic, too strange, and simultaneously too predictable and unpredictable to be anything but a Neil Young album. It is comfortably familiar, yet there are enough troubling accents, unusual proposals, and odd arrangements and musical choices to upset and inspire all of those who are willing to go beyond the surface paint to scrape into the rust of Chrome Dreams II.
Young is no stranger to making unusual choices. Throughout his career, he’s held back songs, almost released them, signed contracts, and pulled out of them whenever myriad concerns have rung alarm bells in the labyrinth of Young’s cerebellum. He is nothing if not a perfectionist. On at least one occasion, he has bought back albums that already were pressed because he did not believe they were good enough for the public to hear. It has never mattered to him whether or not his own taste and discretion were at odds with what is commercially viable or popular. It always has been ultimately up to the mercurial Mr. Young to decide the shape of the finished work that reaches the ears of his fans.
In an already unconventional catalogue, Chrome Dreams II is a weirder entry than most. Some have made the case that Young needs to leave his ranch and get out into the world more frequently. There’s an argument for this. Like the 300 acres Young lives on, the universe of concerns addressed on Chrome Dreams II is vast. However, after so many years spent wandering the same woods, every stone has been charted; the paths of every root and tree have been followed and experienced. The result is that Chrome Dreams II an insular work that is full of signs, symbols, and Young-ish runes that the faithful immediately will recognize. It is a well-weathered collection of songs that have been tarnished and burnished, though the outcome is that almost every track on the effort is a welcome addition to his oeuvre.
Some critics have cringed upon hearing Beautiful Bluebird, the opening track on Chrome Dreams II, and they have referred to the tune as "maudlin." To be sure, Young is coasting on an old groove. It does sound like Sail Away — as well as any number of other songs he has composed over the years — but there’s something so heartfelt and unflinching in his observations that lines like "If Heaven has a window where the sun came shining through/Like a beautiful bluebird, I’d come home to you" — if given time — will melt the hardest of hearts and the most bitter of critics. To be fair, Chrome Dreams II is full of lyrics that only Young could deliver. On paper, sentiments such as "The world is full of questions/Some are answered/Some are not/The only faith you’re keeping/Is the faith you still got" sound trite and underdeveloped. As Young performs them, they are elegiac, uplifting, and profound. As ever, it’s all in the feel with Neil.
If there’s a theme to be found on Chrome Dreams II, it revolves around Young’s attempt to outline and describe his own spiritual insights. Whether this had anything to do with his recent brush with death or simply is the result of a lifetime spent pensively brooding is anyone’s guess. These songs form the album’s nucleus, and, of them, Shining Light — which boasts the sort of heartfelt vocals and subdued instrumentation that suspiciously make it sound like it could be an outtake from Are You Passionate? (minus Booker T and the MGs) — is the most successful. The other tracks that explore this theme — The Believer, No Hidden Path, and The Way — are all delicate, personal, and beautiful explorations of the divine moments that reveal themselves occasionally in everyday life. In many ways, these compositions represent the highwater mark in Young’s lifelong fascination with North American aboriginal culture and spirituality.
The only song that doesn’t sit well is the much discussed 18-minute workout Ordinary People. Originally written during Young’s tenure with the Bluenotes, it is a less successful exploration of the themes that were brilliantly expressed in Crime in the City, an outstanding, Dylan-esque track from 1989’s Freedom. Yet, even with its excessive length and lack of focus, Ordinary People boasts some of the most creative solos Young has managed to conjure in quite some time. The call-and-response between the guitar and horn section is breathtaking; it’s almost enough to make one forgive the tune’s lack of cohesion.
This one misstep aside, Chrome Dreams II is a delightful endeavor. The music is, at once, personal and universal, and all of its time-weathered signposts are familiar and intact. The songs offer a glimpse from an internal world that is not afraid of inconsistency and failure. In 2007, Young’s singing and his guitar work are delivered almost in a shorthand that one either understands or doesn’t. There is no middle ground. Chrome Dreams II is clearly a labor of love, and whether anyone likes it probably doesn’t faze Young at all. Somewhere out there, he already has moved onto the next project.
Like the trickster raven in the Canadian aboriginal myth, Young remains elusive yet almost understood, a figure that shape-shifts between the visible and the invisible. In the end — when it is least expected — he steals the sun from the Gods and brings light to the universe. Chrome Dreams II is a challenging and delightful work from an artist who has broken every mold. Joker, humanist, old crank, and curmudgeon — the world needs Young more than he needs it. Long may he run.
Chrome Dreams II 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 © 2007 The Music Box