Prairie Wind - Neil Young
Neil Young turns 60 next month. Given that Prairie Wind is his 31st album, and in 1979 he once sang "it's better to burn out than to fade away", is the release of the hoary old curmudgeon's latest effort not tinged with just a teensy bit of unintentional irony?
Well, yes. And no. Billed in some quarters as the closing album in a trilogy that began with 1972's classic Harvest and was followed by the obvious-and-pretty-good sequel Harvest Moon twenty years later, Prairie Wind weighs in with some decent songs, and it's better than anything Young has put out since the mid 90s. But it's the mawkish, overly sentimental tracks - Far From Home and No Wonder immediately spring to mind - silly lyrics (He Was The King, dedicated to Elvis Presley, complete with gospel-style backing singers and a dubious horn section) and occasionally saccharin production that marr the album, leaving it far short of these earlier efforts.
This is a shame. Young's career has spanned over 40 years, and although his back catalogue is scattered with more than a few - well, mishaps - these are always outweighed and outshone by some quite fantastic albums that veer from gentle, autumnal country (the aforementioned Harvest albums and the yearning, introspective After The Goldrush) to feedback-drenched, rollicking rock (Ragged Glory). And he has inspired countless others: Wilco, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Beck and My Morning Jacket have all cited Neil Young as an influence (even though the latter's frontman Jim James doesn't like being compared to him).
Prairie Wind's good bits, then. It opens strongly with The Painter, which lollops along like an understated version of Cripple Creek Ferry, the closing track on After The Goldrush. Here, Young ruminates on the passing of time, singing "It's a long road behind me" (well, yes) and "It's a long road ahead" (you can't help but admire his stoicism here and hope he's right). Falling Off The Face of the Earth is a gentle, thoughtful love song and Here For You really wouldn't sound at all out of place on Harvest or Comes A Time. Alongside the low-key, reflective This Old Guitar it's one of the best tracks on offer - and what's remarkable about both of these songs is that they are amongst eight tracks that were written and recorded in the week after Young was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm and before it was operated upon (the final two songs came during his recovery).
Perhaps even more surprising is one of the other highlights: the piano-driven When God Made Me could have turned out horribly, but it's almost alarmingly beautiful; its themes are universal, and you certainly don't have to be religious to appreciate it. Had I read the lyrics on the page without hearing the music, I'd have been a little unsure, to say the least - but Young's trembling vocal, simple piano and backing singers really do work. Okay, so it's not quite After The Goldrush, but it's alluring, graceful and eloquent all the same.
Prairie Wind is a mixed bag, alternately frustrating and compelling. The better tracks make it difficult to criticise too harshly, and it's impossible not to stand back and admire Young's work ethic, especially given the context in which the album was recorded. Those hoping for a genuine follow-up to the Harvest albums, though, will come away slightly disappointed. But is Neil Young fading away? No, not a bit of it.