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In his 70s, Neil Young never seems to grow old

  • On his 39th studio album, the septuagenarian rocker oozes energy and passion
  • Colorado, his latest work, has all the ingredients of becoming a classic

Neil Young performing during the 2017 Farm Aid in Pennsylvania.
Neil Young performing during the 2017 Farm Aid in Pennsylvania. (Photo: Getty Images)

On 12 November, Neil Young will turn 74. It is difficult to think of too many rock musicians who have been as prolific and consistently authentic as he has been in a career spanning five decades. Young is not only dearly loved by fans but is also admired by fellow musicians—his peers, of course, but also by generations of younger musicians from virtually every genre of contemporary music, many of whom have been deeply inspired by him. Late this October, Young, who was born in Canada, released his 39th studio album, Colorado. It was also his reunion after several years with his long-time backing band, Crazy Horse, a group with whom Young first collaborated in 1969.

That year, Young and Crazy Horse released Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Young’s second studio album that is acknowledged to be one of his best. Fifty years have passed and Crazy Horse have undergone several personnel changes, yet Colorado, Young’s newest album, sounds so reminiscent of his best work with the band that it can seem uncanny. Many old musicians who have managed to survive and remain active for decades choose the easy way out. They either keep recycling their past by reiterating their old catalogues of songs or try to produce new work that often seems to be a poor imitation of what they did in their heydays. Some of them even appear to be caricatures of their past selves. But Young is different.

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With Colorado, a set of 10 brand new tracks, Young has done something rare: He has created songs that sound familiar yet are also fresh and new. Colorado has all the trademarks of Young’s sound. Intense guitar riffs, jagged and raw, Young’s scorching harmonica, and his unique tenor vocals that can sometime slip into falsetto notes, all of which together have made him a sort of grunge guru for legions of people. Then there are his lyrics. For many years now, Young has been actively vocal about environmental issues—global warming, climate change and environmental sustainability are issues close to his heart. And when he addresses those, he doesn’t pull his punches. In 2015, he released an album, The Monsanto Years, which criticized the agricultural behemoth Monsanto for its GMO (genetically modified organism) related business practices.

On Colorado too, Young’s activism and concern for the planet surface in many of the song lyrics. In the epic, nearly 14-minute-long She Showed Me Love, which is the centrepiece of the album, he sings : If I tell you what I see (What I see)/ You might not believe me (What I see)/ I saw old white guys trying to kill mother nature (What I see)/(Who they disparage?)/ I saw old white guys trying to kill mother nature. In Green Is Blue, he laments about how humans have ignored the warning calls about weather changes, floods and forest fires. But it is not all gloom and rage: In Rainbow Of Colors, Young sings of hope and strength and people’s resolve to make things better environmentally.

Colorado can evoke comparisons with Young’s classic albums of the past. The sound is eerily close to some of his brilliant records and songs: the stunning Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, of course, but also eternally brilliant songs such as Heart Of Gold and Hey Hey, My My. Some of the new songs are anthemic, however, some have already been adopted by climate activists. Shut It Down, an angry song about shutting “the whole system down", has already become a theme song at protest rallies by activists like Greta Thunberg.

There is, as mentioned, a gentler side to the album as well. The album closer, I Do, is a song rendered tenderly by Young and he is optimistic and full of hope for the future when he sings: Show me that water in the stream that you saw/ Let me see the sparkling clean and the fish swimming on/ I know you said they’ll always be there/ I know you’re not worried, I know you care/ I know you ask all the same questions I do.

Young’s band, Crazy Horse, sounds as good as it did in the past. The veteran guitarist Nils Lofgren is back with the band after many decades and the way he and the others sound—along with Young’s own guitar riffs and searing harmonica— will surely delight Young’s long-time fans. Colorado is classic Neil Young. And though it sounds like a welcome blast from the past, every song on it oozes with freshness.

Colorado is an album that shows Young’s songs and his music have not lost any of the passion that inflects his older work. If anything, that passion is even more intense now. Like many of Young’s older fans, I still experience goosebumps when I listen to his albums from the late 1960s and the 1970s: albums such as After The Gold Rush, Harvest and Rust Never Sleeps. At first listen, Colorado brought a sense of déjà vu. Though it is teeming with high-voltage energy, it is also amply enriched with a new, contemporary sensibility. After all these years, Young, incredibly, doesn’t seem to have grown old.

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

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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