Advance word on Silver & Gold, the new Neil Young LP, pegged it as a return to the country-folk form Young resurrects and perfects from time to time, most recently on 1992’s Harvest Moon. That buzz was mostly on target, so don’t let the album’s computerized cover art fool you. The pixilated photo raises the specter, if only indirectly, of 1982’s Trans, a wacked-out but genius collection of techno-rock that was partly responsible for Young’s then-label Geffen’s suing him for making gratuitously noncommercial records. Like most Neil Young albums, Trans featured an impressive collection of memorable tunes. Trouble was, the artist sang most of them through a vocoder, a device that made him sound like a helium addict.
There’s not much in the way of musical mischief or career-defying stunts on Silver & Gold. Instead, the new album is just a fine collection of crowd-pleasing folk-pop—nothing more, nothing less. And so it’s also vaguely disappointing. His gift for easy melody is omnipresent, of course; it’s the thing that makes you pay attention in the first place, the thing that’s made him a star. But Young’s solo career has been more or less evenly divided between the inspired hippie-folk outings at one extreme and the more raucous efforts with Crazy Horse at the other. Sometimes, as on Rust Never Sleeps, Young can’t make up his mind, and so he splits the proceedings down the middle. Stoner indecision never sounded so good—Young practically makes it an aesthetic principle.
But Young is truly special—worthy, even, of all the hyperbolic accolades he’s ever received—because, even beyond operating all over the sonic spectrum, he finds other, more idiosyncratic ways to take our collective breath away. Who, for instance, could have expected the warm and knowing embrace of Johnny Rotten (and the cross-reference to Elvis Presley) in “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)”? The goofy proto-grunge of 1981’s Re-ac-tor? The caustic chant of “Four dead in Ohio” back in the CSN&Y days?
You won’t find much surprising about Silver & Gold, but that’s not to say you won’t love it—that part is pretty easy. The opening track, “Good to See You,” sets the stage with two minutes and 28 seconds of shuffling beats, warm feelings, and snaky, acoustic guitar. Always a tasteful showoff, Young laces the song with pretty flourishes of Ben Keith’s steel guitar and his own curious, inviting lyrics: “I’m the suitcase in your hallway/I’m the footsteps on your floor/When I’m lookin’ down on you/I feel like I know what my life is for.”
“Good to See You” establishes the meditative, casually inspired tone that the rest of the album rarely deviates from, though Young does occasionally take it in subtly different directions. On the title track, he downshifts to a more somber cadence and contemplates (for the umpteenth time) one of his favorite themes: the timelessness of love. “Silver & Gold” threatens repeatedly to turn into “Sugar Mountain” just around the next chorus, but Young’s beautifully cracked warble makes it easy not to care. At least, not much.
Not so “Horseshoe Man,” which borrows its meandering melody and rhythmic lilt from “Wrecking Ball,” a song on 1989’s career-resuscitating Freedom. The earlier track featured oddball lyrics about a lovers’ rendezvous at the least likely of places—the demolition tool of the song’s punning title. “Meet me at the wrecking ball/Wear something pretty and white,” Young sang, causing fans to scratch their heads and smile at the same time. This time out, Young appropriates the melody for a saccharine tale about a local legend whose distinguishing characteristic was apparently a penchant for platitudes. At this point, who needs to be told that “Love’s the answer/Love’s the question”?
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m unduly intrigued by the grand (or even the slight) failures of major rock ‘n’ rollers. I tend to favor the experiments that don’t sell, and I generally admire bad music-biz decisions. Young has made some of the worst. Ragged Glory’s “F*!#in’ Up” is more than a great song; for Young, it’s a lifestyle choice, a professional hazard. But relative flops like Hawks & Doves, Re-ac-tor, and Trans have been glorious results of misspent record label cash.
There’s nothing f*!#ed up about Silver & Gold—this is the sound of Young playing it exceedingly safe. By my count, there are exactly two instances—which is to say, far too few—of Young’s musical audacity on the record: the sweetly affecting “Buffalo Springfield Again” and the truly amazing “Razor Love.” The former is a hokey, country-folk love letter to Young’s old group in which he proposes getting the band back together, dude; the latter is something else. Clocking in at six-and-a-half minutes, the track easily takes best-of-disc honors, mostly on the strength of its hypnotic, barely-there arrangement. Young has experimented with etherealized atmospherics before, but he’s never been this successful, this moving. It’s the gentlest love song of his career, and it turns on the image of a razor. CP