2000 / Music

Review: Young’s ‘Silver & Gold’ Mines Familiar Vein

New Album Revisits ‘Harvest’ Heyday … Again

Photo: Reprise Records

Photo: Reprise Records

For most of the last decade, it seems that every new Neil Young album is proclaimed to be the true follow-up to his early ’70s country-rock masterpiece, “Harvest.”

That album — a meditation on love, drugs, miscommunication and loneliness — is a hushed acoustic album featuring some stunning steel guitar work. Focused on Young’s songwriting and his fusion of styles, it has remained his finest moment on record amid a career of musical wandering and dabbling.

Until now, 1991’s “Harvest Moon” was the closest contender, if only in approach and not with material. Nine years later (and more than 18 years after “Harvest”), Young has completed “Silver & Gold,” yet another sequel to “Harvest.” It’s mildly successful if only because it seems that we’ve heard all this before.

Looking at his entire career, it seems that Young is strongest either when he’s bashing out riffs amid the sonic thunder of his sometime backup group, Crazy Horse, or when he’s playing countrified acoustic music.

And it’s the acoustic stuff that gets the biggest reaction.

There’s something magical in the way Young’s high, ghostly voice complements his strumming of an acoustic guitar (the only other instruments that he uses in this phase — sparing drums, bass or pedal-steel guitar — is the harmonica, which he uses in Dylanesque fashion between the verses). In his voice and guitar, there’s a sense of purity, of nakedness and frankness, that exudes from each song. It amplifies the good and hides the cliche.

It’s an approach with which he’s had a lot of practice.

But Young seems to be in a bit of a reflective mood lately. For the last few years, he’s been compiling a multi-disc box set spanning his whole solo career. The box set, which will include live material, demos and other rare tracks, is slated to come out next fall.

Sometime this summer, a Buffalo Springfield box set is scheduled for release. Young and his Springfield cohort Stephen Stills both had a hand in the selection of the songs for the box set.

It is the pair’s collaboration on the Springfield box set that sparked Young to hook up again with Stills, David Crosby and Graham Nash. Recording together led to a new Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young album — the first in almost 10 years.

In fact, the CSNY album, “Looking Forward,” and the tour (which was just completed a couple of months ago) had a dramatic impact on Young’s new album, “Silver & Gold.”

While Young was working on these retrospectives, he was also at work on his own new album. The mostly acoustic album was almost complete when the CSNY collaboration began. Young eventually offered any of the songs on the album from which the band could cherry-pick. (The four songs that were taken by CSNY were “Looking Forward,” “Slowpoke,” “Out of Control” and “Queen of Them All.”)

The sound of harmonica and the tangled lines from an acoustic guitar open the album. “Good to See You” is an uptempo number that, despite some rather cliched lyrics (Haven’t we heard enough about “endless highways”?), is an intriguing listen. It’s kind of catchy.

The album’s title track has the sound of focused loneliness, thanks to Young’s restrained singing, the thump of the guitar strings and a little “Forever Young” harmonica thrown in. The droning of each guitar string is like a brief moan.

The first break with the album’s formula comes with the bouncy piano of “Buffalo Springfield Again.” A song of remembrance for his previous group, the song really proves that there are some subjects about which you really just shouldn’t write songs. Despite some interesting guitar breaks, the song is boring and emotionless.

It’s sort of remarkable: Young sings about the band without revealing anything personal. He sings about hearing a Springfield song on the radio. He mentions no names, no reason why he (or we) should look back at them. He sounds completely detached. The song is almost sung from the perspective of a listener who can’t remember anyone who is in the group or why they were good.

And that might be where Young is lacking at times as a songwriter: He never really says or reveals anything profound. In a remark about the song “Silver & Gold,” Young said it shows how he holds relationships as more valuable than money. Duh!

What becomes clear is that Young is writing in a traditional country rock vein dating back to the late ’60s and ’70s. Although it traps Young into writing about well-covered subjects, some of the record’s songs are inventive.

Young’s voice is very much out front during “Great Divide,” and atmospheric organ and pedal steel float in the background. The steel guitar/organ combo (courtesy of longtime sideman Ben Keith and organ legend Spooner Oldham) is the secret weapon of the album. Though they are supplemental to Young’s vocals and guitar, their playing pops to fill the gaps.

“Red Sun” is where things start to get more interesting. The song is a proclamation of love that features some stellar backup vocals from Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt and a stinging slide guitar. Slow but potent, Young sings of devotion while stark strumming and an organ hum along.

The next song, “Distant Camera,” is another strong number (maybe it’s because he stole some of the guitar licks from the intro to his ’70s hit “Heart of Gold”), and the song is the best cut on the album.

In many ways, the song is the closest to a direct copy of his ’70s material, and it features the cheesiest lyrics on the album (“All I need is a song of love to sing for you”). Besides that, a subtle steel guitar part and pouncing church organ bolsters a song that at first glance looked like a rewrite.

At the record’s conclusion, you get the feeling that you missed something. The album moves by quickly, but you won’t really remember anything from it — sort of a country-rock breeze.

To be fair, the album definitely should be grouped with “Harvest” and “Harvest Moon:” not an equal but progeny.

Sure, “Silver & Gold” sounds like Neil Young, and there are some good-quality songs on it, but that’s the problem. He hasn’t really uncovered anything or said something new with his acoustic guitar on this outing. He’s only polished the formula, so much so that it slips right by.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2000 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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