What I like to do sometimes is go to Neil Young shows and start betting pools on how long “Cortez the Killer” will last. As in, what could conceivably transpire while the song is still going—an episode of How I Met Your Mother? The Vivian Girls record? Your commute home? Join us now at Madison Square Garden, late Tuesday lurching defiantly into early Wednesday on the second of a righteous two-night back-to-back assault, two and a half hours per, and Neil is clearly feeling it, grimacing (more than usual) and slapping his head theatrically as he moans: “I still can’t remember where/Or how I lost my way.” We’d have settled comfortably in our seats by now if anyone had thought to sit down; “Cortez” tonight might end up lasting longer than some other rock stars’ careers. But no, actually, in the end, it’s a mere 10-minute affair, a prim haiku by Neil’s standards, which bodes both good and ill. The former because, hey, now it’s on to “Cinnamon Girl.” Less agreeably, though, such brevity only leaves more time for one of his new songs—and his new songs, I regret to inform you, are absolutely terrible.
Look, you don’t need me to gas on about the restorative, stupendously surly power of “Hey Hey, My My” or “Cowgirl in the Sand,” grouchy and brutal under the expert care of Neil and his pummeling electric band, his wife Pegi’s cooing backing vocals the only point of warming light. His own guitar solos are luridly violent affairs—he staggers crazily about like an enraged fisherman who doesn’t realize he’s hooked the seat of his own pants, his spastic jerks and lurches somehow not corresponding to any sound anyone is making, including him. The effect is profoundly ugly and equally mesmerizing, and initially, it enthralls even when the set list turns away from The Beloved Neil Young Canon: “Spirit Road,” off last year’s Chrome Dreams II, indulges in bald-tires open-road cliché (“There’s a long highway in your mind”), but plays up the horror rather than the romance: The way an endless, inviting horizon dwarfs and overwhelms all who gaze upon it can make you feel like “A speck of dust in a giant world,” as he snarls tonight. Somehow it’s a fitting ode to the impending death of the American auto industry. But, ah, Neil’s made this connection, too, and tonight, amid luscious dips into The Beloved Neil Young Canon, we are also graced/terrorized with multiple cuts from what would seem to be an impending concept album about eco-friendly cars.
We’re not dealing with a guy who bothers much with metaphor here. He gets pissed at George W. Bush, so he writes a song called “Let’s Impeach the President.” Nonetheless, these new tunes are disturbingly beef-witted: Endless exhortations to “Fill ‘er up!”; mindless refrains of “Cough up the bucks!” (which I misheard the first 200 or so times as “Cough up the bugs,” which fits the imagery better, actually); starry-eyed tributes to “the awesome power of electricity”; lots of driver’s-ed-instruction-as-societal-imperative (“I turn my signal on and look both ways”). The closest thing to a clever line is “She looks so beautiful with her top down,” which, well . . . The music, too, chugs mindlessly along, the awkward sloganeering weighing down the boilerplate top-down rock ‘n’ roll highway bravado with 10 pounds of syllables in a five-pound bag. The crowd’s restlessness is painfully evident, particularly in the case of two stupendously drunk older ladies in my row who start booing loudly and shouting, “You suck!” into the bug-/buck-coughing din.
I am struggling to think of anyone who could possibly give less of a fuck about what you think of his/her new album than Neil Young does. But each song tonight creates an unpleasant binary effect: Love it if we immediately recognize it; barely tolerate it if we don’t. Neil briefly switches to lovely, funereal organ for “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem),” a nearly 20-year-old song that nonetheless feels of a piece with his new stuff in terms of both sentiment and ham-fisted application of sentiment: “Oh, Mother Earth, with your fields of green/How long can you give and not receive?” From there, he leaps immediately back to acoustic guitar for the far more familiar, and far more elegant, “The Needle and the Damage Done,” and we are hilariously relieved to be rescued by this brutal lament: The line, “Every junkie’s like a setting sun,” triggers a huge burst of applause.
So the new tonight only makes us better appreciate the old, and the 60-percent-of-the-original-capacity crowd still toughing it out well after midnight is eventually rewarded with “Rockin’ in the Free World,” then penalized during the encore with another new one (“You gotta get behind the wheel/In the morning and drive”), then befuddled by a sloppy, dissonant take on “A Day in the Life,” which sounds like they tore down Shea Stadium with the Beatles still playing inside it, that dreamy ah-ah-ah-ah melody now buried in grit and grime and gleeful discord. We love Neil Young because he does whatever the hell he wants, even if half the time we’d rather not sit around and watch him do it. There is only so much entertainment you can derive from watching a genius lose his way.