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It’s better to burn out, rust, or become a backup singer for Ace of Base than to be Pearl Jam circa 10. And who better to know just how unhip Pearl Jam once was than Neil Young, who had to blast and claw his way out of popular-acceptance purgatory after topping the charts 23 years ago with the mostly bland Harvest and the utterly bland “Heart of Gold.” (For all his perverse ’80s experimentation, Young never tinkered with Top 40 success again.) An alliance would seem to serve both well: Eddie Vedder and company get to temper their reputation for slickness and callowness, while the 49-year-old Young gets to rage against the dying of the youth-culture light with platinum alterna-rockers almost young enough to be his kids.
The way Young tells it, the making of Mirror Ball wasn’t that calculated. He and PJ came together at a series of benefits, notably at a Voters for Choice benefit at Constitution Hall. Young, full-time Canadian and sometime Reaganite, had written “Act of Love” and “Song X,” two anti-anti-abortion numbers that he proposed recording with PJ; the sessions, supervised by regular PJ producer Brendan O’Brien in Seattle, soon yielded an album. With characteristic Young dispatch, Ball was recorded in about four days.
The loose, noisy result sounds more like a Neil Young and Crazy Horse project than last year’s Sleep With Angels, the surprisingly delicate Neil Young and Crazy Horse album that saluted Kurt Cobain, grunge’s martyr (and Vedder’s former antagonist). Sloppy, ragged, and spirited, Ball is Young’s latest testament as a rocker. It’s also another last testament for Cobain, Danny Whitten, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, John Bonham, and—why not?—Jerry Garcia.
Unlike Hendrix and Lennon, the Grateful Dead guitarist isn’t mentioned by name on Ball; Young of course had no way of anticipating that Garcia would be the latest casualty. The album could just as easily be haunted by the shade of Andrew Wood, the heroin-O.D.’d lead singer of Mother Love Bone, the band with which guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament played between Green River and PJ.
Still, the cover’s late-’60s-style hippie-baroque lettering and the granola-brown, plastic-free cardboard packaging are as Dead as can be. So are the high-contrast crowd-scene photos, which suggest that this is a live album. It’s not, but it might be the precursor of one: Young and PJ are currently touring Europe together, troubadour and jam band, just like Dylan and the Dead.
Ball begins with “Song X,” in which Young ironically announces that “life’s a joy for boys and girls” before cryptically turning to its announced subject, the murder of abortionist Dr. David Gunn: “The doctor and his case/Without a plan/They left the van/And there were laid to waste.” “Act of Love” follows with its reference to “holy war,” but these two songs seem to lead off the album only because they began the PJ collaboration. Young doesn’t hit his stride until the third track, the seven-minute “I’m the Ocean,” whose lyrics mix metaphors (conscious or not) for the huge surging sound achieved by the three guitarists (Mike McCready is the other one) with fairly banal observations on contemporary life (as seen on TV, of course; Young lives in a northern California hippie refuge and doesn’t get out much). Still, the song does include one pertinent boast: “People my age,” Young announces, “They don’t do the things I do.”
“Can’t forget what happened yesterday,” the singer explains a few songs later, and PJ wouldn’t want him to. Unlike Johnny Rotten, Young’s favorite youngster in another era, the ’70s-struck PJ could hardly object to accompanying him to the hippie party exalted in “Downtown,” the album’s other centerpiece: “Jimi’s playing in the back room/Led Zeppelin on stage/There’s a mirror ball twirlin’/And a note from Page.”
This scenario does sound like a dream come true for PJ—what Seattle band wouldn’t want to receive a note from Page?—but what about for Young? Though he’s never exactly been a joiner, there’s nothing to suggest that this “psychedelic dream” of communal merriment is anything but sincere—the druggy disgust of Tonight’s the Night‘s “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown” is banished by PJ’s agile, earnest rocking—or that Young doesn’t desire the “Peace and Love” he recalls in a subsequent track. “Peace and love/Lennon’s goodbye/Deserted by heroes/Strangers in your own land/No way to deny you/No way to deny you/Peace and love,” he sings before turning to yet another hippie bromide, “Throw Your Hatred Down.”
Young has long conserved his melodic strength with the tossed-off or borrowed tune, and nothing on Ball—from the sea chanty of the opening “Song X” to the closing “Fallen Angel,” a fragmentary reprise of the Sleeps With Angels theme set to a lone, Nico-like pump organ—is as fully realized as the best stuff on his early, most enduring albums. Ball doesn’t even rival Angels, which was characteristically offhand yet still achieved a sonic complexity and outright prettiness rare in Young’s recent work.
So it turns out that, no matter how optimal the union might seem in theory, neither Young nor PJ really need each other. The two sound good together, but the singer already has long-term ties to other musicians who will drive him to acts of jagged-edged guitar anti-heroism, while the band has already finessed its dubious early reputation with more ambitious follow-up albums and its children’s crusade against Ticketmaster. Rather than a revelation, Ball is just a vacation.
Pacing their temporary frontman through “I’m the Ocean,” a worthy addition to the list of gnarled and sprawling force-of-nature Young rockers that includes “Down by the River” and “Like a Hurricane,” PJ does just fine. But if the band had inspired Young to spend more than a week on an album, or to write some lyrics that he pondered for more than few minutes, “Song X” would be a public service rather than merely a public service announcement.