As the world continued to reel from the ripple effects of a pandemic that doesn’t seem to be going away, four veteran musicians with an average age of 75-plus decided to closet themselves in a 19th century log barn in Colorado in the Rocky Mountains and make a record. The musicians were Neil Young and his three long-time Crazy Horse bandmates. And the record is Barn, the 41st in Young’s solo career, which began in the late 1960s.
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The 10 songs on Barn—all new compositions by Young—were recorded as the musicians played them in the barn, in analogue format, with minimal post-production intervention. A studio control room was set up outside in an old truck. Quintessentially Young tunes, the songs are craggy, interspersed with his trademark scorching guitar leads and vocals—a nasally tenor that occasionally flirts with falsetto notes.
You can either spin the album by itself, or listen to it and then watch the accompanying documentary Young’s wife, Daryl Hannah, shot on location. Or you could, like me, begin by listening to a fascinating discussion with Young, who talks about this project and walks you through the album song by song. The discussion streams for free on the radio channel NPR’s World Cafe podcast.
Crazy Horse and Neil Young have made 14 records over half a century. Drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot and multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren have played with Young, performing together at countless gigs over the years.
On Barn, the band sounds as cohesive as ever. Yet their music is raw and rustic. In the discussion with NPR, Young says that when he plays on stage at a pop festival with a hundred thousand people in the audience, what he feels is not very different from what a farmer might feel when he stands on his porch and faces a prairie rolling into the horizon.
When Young, who turned 76 in November, is asked by the NPR host how he would advise people to listen to Barn, he responds, “Preferably, loud” and in comfort. “Get comfortable!” he says, “and that’s an order.”
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The album opens with Song Of The Seasons, a gentle tune, with Young’s harmonica and Lofgren’s accordion creating a nostalgic aura that harks back to the early 1970s era of folk rock. It is in the second song, Heading West, that Young gets personal. When he was a boy of around 11 in Canada, his parents separated and, while his elder brother stayed with their father in Toronto, Young left with his mother for Winnipeg in the west. Talking about the song on NPR, Young says that the fact that their family had broken up had not sunk in at the time; it was more like going on a road trip with his mother in her old British car, a Standard Ensign, which moved slowly, taking more than three days to reach their destination. The lyrics describe a touching tale of a boy leaving for a new life with his mother.
Barn has songs about love—one of them, Tumblin’ Thru The Years, is dedicated to Hannah, whom he married in 2018—and about issues he has championed over the years, such as climate change and the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In the past, he has taken on agriculture giants such as Monsanto in his songs, and concerns about climate change find frequent reference in his lyrics. Barn too has two songs that deal with concerns about the degradation of our planet—Change Ain’t Never Gonna and Human Race. Young says Change Ain’t Never Gonna, a sort of futuristic look at the problems we face today, is about people who resist any kind of change, whether it relates to the environment or our society.
In one song, Canerican, Young discusses his status as an American citizen (he became one finally at 74 and voted for Joe Biden in the last US presidential election) but also laments the erosion of values.
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One song that stands out particularly is Welcome Back. One reason is length: It’s over eight minutes long. But more importantly, as most Young fans will likely realise immediately, it is like a redux of his hypnotic, trippy songs of the 1970s. With Young’s guitar lead and vocals, it could easily belong to one of his early classic albums, such as Tonight’s The Night or On The Beach.
The sense of déjà vu is made even more poignant by the lyrics: “Gonna sing an old song to you right now/ One that you’ve heard before/ Might be a window to your soul I can open slowly/ I’ve been singing this way for so long/ Riding through the storm/ Might remind me of who we are/ And why we walk so lowly.”
Barn reaffirms Young’s status as one of rock music’s living legends. He is prolific, consistent, and, most of all, enjoys what he’s doing. And, though age has taken a toll on Young’s voice and some of the lyrics may seem bland, even puerile, you can sense the fun a bunch of septuagenarians are having.
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