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Neil Young is a gift that never stops giving

'World Record', Neil Young's 42th studio album, is centred around a plea to protect the planet. Young wrote most of the 11 songs on the album in two days

Neil Young, 2016. (Wikimedia Commons)

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In the past 10 years, Neil Young has released as many as 15 albums with as many as a dozen of them comprising new material—songs that he wrote especially for those albums. Besides these, in 2019 Young launched an ambitious subscription website and app, the Neil Young Archives, which has almost everything he has recorded, categorised chronologically as well as in playlists that can be accessed by subscribers. Those archives are continuously updated with unreleased old material as well as new releases that Young, who turned 77 this year, relentlessly continues to release.

This November, Young released his 42nd studio album titled World Record, which he recorded with his longtime favourite backing band, Crazy Horse. For the first time he collaborated with Rick Rubin who produced the album. Rubin is a celebrated producer with a track record of having worked with a diverse range of musicians from varied genres—from hip hop to heavy metal to alternative rock and country music.

Last year, Young released Barn, an album that was recorded in a 19th century log barn in Colorado in the Rocky Mountains with Crazy Horse, with whom Young has been playing since the late 1960s. It was accompanied by a film shot by his wife, the actor Darryl Hannah. Barn sounded like a nostalgic trip back to the folk rock era of the 1970s. Recorded with hardly any post-production intervention, Barn was raw and rustic.

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World Record, however, is a different story altogether. Young wrote most of the 11 songs on the album in two days. He was out on long walks whistling tunes that he would record on a flip phone. Later, he would write the lyrics to accompany the tunes. Rubin and he then reviewed the “songs” before enlisting Crazy Horse to record them at Rubin’s Malibu studio.

The other thing about World Record is its theme. Young has been a passionate activist deeply committed to protection of the Earth and against environmental degradation, fossil fuels, and corporate farming—in 2015, Young released The Monsanto Years, an album of songs that criticised the agribusiness company, Monsanto. On World Record, the songs are centred around a plea to protect the planet, prevent war, and ruminations about where the world is headed.

The album opener Love Earth sets the tone. A wispy song backed by piano, it has simple lyrics: “Love Earth/ And your love comes back to you/ Love Earth/ Such an easy thing to do.” On I Walk with You (Earth Ringtone), the tone of the music changes; Young weighs in with his heavy guitar riff as he sings about the ravaged planet and how we must fight against its further degradation.

The theme continues in several of the other songs on the album as their titles would suggest: The Old Planet (Changing Days), The World (Is In Trouble Now), and Walking On The Road (To The Future). On some songs, instead of the guitar (which is usually a staple of Young’s music), it is the piano or an old-fashioned pump organ that does lead duties while Young sings in his nasally tenor that has not lost its characteristic tone despite his advancing age.

Then, just before the end of the album, the penultimate song kicks in. Titled Chevrolet, it is a 15-minute plus track. It is also a quintessentially classic Neil Young song. It is bluesy, it is raw, and it is like a throwback to his 1979 album, Rust Never Sleeps, which became a sort of lodestone for the grunge music movement that emerged famously in Seattle in the mid-1980s. For many bands at the forefront of the movement, Young became their inspiration and he earned the sobriquet, “Godfather of Grunge”. Chiefly, it was his pushing of boundaries with his guitar and using distortion, noise and unfettered jams that made him a sort of guru of the nascent grunge scene when it emerged. Bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana considered Young as their strongest influencer. In 1995, members of Pearl Jam also featured on one of Young’s albums, Mirror Ball. There were not-so-happy moments as well such as when Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain quoted the lyrics of one of Young’s songs (“It’s Better to burn out, than to fade away”) in his suicide note.

In the midst of “tree-hugging” songs on World Record, such as the ones related to preserving and protecting the Earth, Chevrolet, which is as heavily gas-guzzling as a fossil fuel-burning car can be, may seem out of place. But as the epic guitar-propelled song unfolds, its lyrics remind listeners about how the time has come to limit the driving of such environmentally unfriendly vehicles even though there may be nostalgic longing for such an experience. Young himself practises what he preaches. A long-time lover of muscle cars, he has modified his collection of cars to use energy-friendly fuels such as R99, a renewable diesel, and ethanol-based fuels.

Young has also always been a sceptic when it comes to highly compressed digitised sound, preferring analogue’s fidelity over lossy formats such as MP3. On YouTube there is a lengthy interview by Apple Music’s Zane Lowe where he talks to Young and Rubin about the making of World Record and they talk about how they recorded it on tape; converted that to digital; and then, went back to the analogue tapes to add back some of the natural live quality that digital often loses. That’s what gives the album the somewhat scrappy ruggedness that has always been the hallmark of Young’s music. For any true fan of Young and his music, that video is a must-see complement to World Record.

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The Lounge List

Five songs by Neil Young & Crazy Horse from World Record to bookend your week

1. Love Earth

2. Break The Chain

3. The Wonder Won’t Wait

4. Chevrolet

5. I Walk With You (Earth Ringtone)

 

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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