For a guy who’s spent a large chunk of his career oscillating between two distinct musical modes, Neil Young has in this decade acted as a particularly strict sonic segregationist. You want reflective, acoustic-guitar-and-harmonica Neil? Try Silver & Gold or Prairie Wind. Pissed-off, (somewhat) amped-up Neil? Go with Greendale or Living with War. Even when he’s taken a hard left off these well-trodden paths—as with Are You Passionate?, his Booker T.–backed foray into Southern soul—Young’s still done so with almost dogged single-mindedness, for both better and worse.
Consequently, Chrome Dreams II, on which various Neils commingle to an extent not heard on record since perhaps 1989’s Freedom, immediately comes off as the 61-year-old artist’s freshest effort in years, even as it’s steeped in Young-ian oddball mythology: The “II” in the title is in deference to the Loch Ness monster that is Chrome Dreams, an unreleased late-’70s “album” that has been credited as the original home of now-classics like “Powderfinger” and “Like a Hurricane.” But Young is also nodding to more verifiable history: The new record is front-loaded with three ’80s-era tunes (“Ordinary People” in particular has, in the ensuing years, been deified by Neil-philes), while the backing musicians gathered here are alumni of past Young bands the Stray Gators, the Bluenotes, and of course, Crazy Horse.
But whereas Chrome Dreams II is to some extent an amalgam of Young musical tropes, its songs are lyrically of a piece, with Neil in many places waxing overtly (albeit secularly) spiritual. If the titles—”Shining Light,” “Spirit Road,” “No Hidden Path,” “Ever After”—don’t drive the point home, the imagery surely does: Young throughout is traveling along windy roads and long highways, keepin’ the faith and prayin’ in the trees, putting his trust in the “great spirit” and looking for his “way back home.”
The differences lie in how he gets there. “Beautiful Bluebird,” a newly recorded version of a song that dates from the sessions for 1985’s Old Ways, rambles with a gentle if slight country-rock lilt, while the train imagery that runs through “Boxcar,” another revitalized tune from that decade, is bolstered by a steady snare drum and sharply picked banjo. Though Young can tend toward the sentimental—as on “Shining Light” and “The Way,” the latter making CD II, inexplicably, his third consecutive studio record to end on a tune that features a choir—scattered throughout the disc are among his most exhilarating and idiosyncratic electric rock songs in years. The 14-minute “No Hidden Path” is an extended showcase for Young’s beautifully strangled guitar lines, while “Spirit Road” is driven by a distorted, jangling riff and propulsive backbeat, over which he balances quasi–New Ageisms (“A speck of dust in the giant world,” “That long highway in your mind”) with more earthly concerns (“Lost your keys,” “Stop to eat”). “Dirty Old Man,” meanwhile, offers up the filthy guitar tone and type of scumbag protagonist that Young paired to great effect on songs like the Rust Never Sleeps proto-grunge romp “Sedan Delivery.”
It’s all well and quite good, though also utterly dwarfed by the massive “Ordinary People,” a lumbering, 18-minute screed first unveiled on Young’s ’88 tour with the Bluenotes. (The version presented here is an unreleased studio recording from that period.) In the grand tradition of epic Neil tunes, it swings with the tenacity of a wrecking ball, gaining potency by doing nothing more than repeating the same thing over and over again. For someone who once said of himself that his “changes are as easy to predict as the sun coming up or down,” Young—unlike most artists his (or any) age—continues to be inspiringly iconoclastic.
Neil Young plays the United Palace Theatre, December 12, 13, 15, and 16, theunitedpalace.com