Mother Earth: Neil Young & Promise of the Real’s new live album EARTH

Jean Ramsay explores the frayed edges of a particular ecological hippie dream

Jean Ramsay explores the frayed edges of a particular ecological hippie dream

Kaarlo Stauffer

Kaarlo Stauffer

There’s a moment on the new Neil Young live album EARTH where everything seems to come into focus.

During the second verse of Hippie Dream (originally from 1986’s Landing On Water), Young sounds truly enraged, spouting vitriol at “wooden ships capsized in excess”, an obvious jab at former colleague and bandmate David Crosby (composer of the CSN song Wooden Ships) and a whole generation of Young’s peers, overweight hippie millionaires festering away in their air conditioned mansions. When he gets to the bridge you almost feel him turning back to look you straight in the eye and exclaim “Just because it’s over for you / don’t mean it’s over for me”, and pummel his message down with a truly evil sounding guitar solo. It is urgent stuff, born out of the moment, but carrying the weight of decades.

The previous song, Vampire Blues, comes from Young’s paranoid 1974 album On the Beach, a record Crosby played on. On the cover of that record, Young seems to be staring out to sea, standing amidst the shipwreck of his 70’s excess. 1974 was the year of the massive CSN&Y tour, where Young – still reeling from the hangover of his breakthrough record Harvest (1972) – encountered the most sordid aspects of mass success, and quickly retreated into a more private hell.

On The Beach takes its name from Stanley Kramer‘s 1959 apocalyptic movie of the same name, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner, which is in turn based on Nevil Shute‘s seminal novel. A classic of the genre, the film portrays a situation faced by a submarine captain surfacing to a reality where the planet has been annihilated by nuclear warfare whilst he’s been submerged.

Young certainly sees himself as the resurfaced submarine captain of his generation

It’s not difficult to draw parallels between the two, as Young certainly sees himself as the resurfaced submarine captain of his generation, still holding on to a vision of the world that others have given up on. And not even simply holding on, but reimagining it, putting it into a modern context, keeping it relevant.

On EARTH, Young adds a new level to Vampire Blues by having the female backing vocalists sing the words ”Chevron, Chevron” as a response to the songs original lines “I’m a vampire babe / sucking blood from the earth”. Apparently his directions to the singers were to sing it like they would in a commercial – to method act to the point where they really thought Chevron was the greatest company in the world.

The effect is troubling, and deservedly so. It shows how relevant Young’s song from the 70’s still is, and how little has changed. The Energy Crisis of the 70’s has given way to oil wars abroad and at home, from Iraq and Afghanistan to fracking in The Tar Sands of the First Nations.

Like most live albums, EARTH consists of old material, but also shows a remarkable thematic unity weaving its way through Young’s career, from 1971’s After The Gold Rush to last year’s Monsanto Years. The record shows us Young as The Environmentalist Hippie, attacking GMO’s and multinationals like Monsanto and Chevron with the same vehemence he showed towards Nixon in the 70’s. EARTH is Living With War (2003) without a clear enemy, an ageing hippie shadow-boxing with an invisible entity.

The record shows us Young as The Environmentalist Hippie, attacking GMO’s and multinationals like Monsanto and Chevron with the same vehemence he showed towards Nixon in the 70’s.

What sets the record apart from previous protest records, or even its recent studio counterpart, The Monsanto Years (2015), is Young’s crackpot idea of mixing in sounds of nature, which in this case means everything from swarms of bees to sounds of rain or thunder. On Vampire Blues, you have a claustrophobic chattering of what sounds like mice, but are most likely bats – “sucking blood”, geddit? Mixed in with the record during post production, these unmusical elements are orchestrated to the point where they take center stage rather than chatter away at the back.

It sounds like a gimmick, and as such it isn’t the first time Young has used it: one need only to look back to songs like Natural Beauty and it’s realistic rainforest soundscape, or the chattering monkeys on Inca Queen, or the ambient sounds of logs burning on a fire on Will to Love.

On EARTH, these are given just as much space as Young and the band.

The record starts with the rumble of thunder. To ears familiar with Neil Young’s corrosive electric art, this doesn’t seem out of place. His career is founded on a heavily distorted and feedback-laden sound forged out of weighty moldy amplifiers with his legendary backing band Crazy Horse. It is a sound that certainly could be classified as elemental.

The heaviness of tides, molten lava, earthquakes and thunder. The sound of cupboard-sized Magnatones and overdriven Fender Deluxes is analogue by nature, it has a physical and spiritual heaviness that is inherent in the pre-war technology that they are made of. Nothing is digital, nothing is simulated. The wooden indian standing stage right is made of wood, not plastic.

The sound of cupboard-sized Magnatones and overdriven Fender Deluxes is analogue by nature, it has a physical and spiritual heaviness

Then again, make no mistake: the first time a cow goes “moo” or a cockerel crows, you almost burst out laughing. The effect is comical, and not accidentally so. Young seems to be in on the joke. The humour of this crackpot project is not lost on him, and that may well be its saving grace. Incorporating sounds of nature into a concert performance is a daunting task, but Young somehow seems to pull it off.

On one hand, the album sounds like a children’s record with assorted farmyard animals mooing along to Old McDonald-Young on his rowboat shouting “more barn!” – as My Country Home rolls along in all it’s hokey glory.

On the other, there is genuine dread in the primordial savannah soundscapes that surround the wavering early human campfires of Love and Only Love. The hyenas seem to breathe in your ear. The elephants sound ancient, massive, destructive. Evolution runs backwards, and we are but one species among others.

The hyenas seem to breathe in your ear. The elephants sound ancient, massive, destructive.

For the past five years or so, Young has been going down a particularly idiosyncratic path, one that is strangely reminiscent of his wilderness years on Geffen in the 1980’s. Young paints his horizons with a vast palette of colours and styles: the luddite lo-fi of A Letter Home (2014) and lush orchestrations of Storytone (2015) seem so far removed from each other that it is hard to believe we are dealing with the same artist.

Psychedelic Pill (2012) was a generally accepted late career high, extending Crazy Horse’s rumbling sound close to the half hour mark on songs that seemed to hang in the air. Touring the album, Young’s band began to physically fall apart. Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro hurt his hand and had to re-learn guitar whilst bassist Billy Talbot suffered a stroke and hasn’t toured or appeared live since. Young replaced him in the last minute with favourite session player Rick Rosas, who sadly passed away just after the tour finished.

You can see why Young started looking around for fresh blood. Promise of the Real are the perfect backing band: young enough to be malleable, nondescript enough to not disrupt the obvious star standing centre stage. The two guitarists, Lucas and Micah, are of course Willie Nelson’s sons, and so the tapestry begins to unravel. Young’s involvement with Farm Aid, a project he helped kickstart with Willie Nelson, has yielded him an unforeseen harvest in a backing band grown to his very needs.

Promise of the Real are the perfect backing band: young enough to be malleable, nondescript enough to not disrupt the obvious star standing centre stage.

“Sooner or later / it all gets real”, sings Young on Walk On, a song from which his current backing band has taken its name. The somewhat overly enthusiastic puppy orchestra of yesteryear has been housetrained to sound like a younger version of Crazy Horse: the sound is lean, and gives a lot of space to Young. Lead guitarist Lucas stays low in the mix and doesn’t trample over grandpa as much as he did on some of those disastrously bad rehearsal clips from the recording of The Monsanto Years.

The track listing is delightfully obscure. One ”new song”, Seed Justice (basically an unreleased song called I Won’t Quit with a new title) acts as a mission statement, with Young squeaking in a pained voice “We keep poor creatures down / To stand in their own shit /Then we blindly go on /And kill it, to eat it”. Ted Nugent this ain’t, that’s for sure.

Even the similarly naive-ish songs from Monsanto Years seem to gain a grain of gravitas with these feverish performances. These songs come from the same place CSN&Y’s Ohio came from: pained anguish in the face of an oppressive force.

There are notable omissions, though.

The recent single Who’s Gonna Stand Up? is very much a precursor of this album (it even contains the line “we are the people known as earth”), and a song Young obviously felt strongly about, as he released it as a separate 12” containing four different versions of the same song. Perhaps the naive idealism of the song felt out of place on the more dark and cynical EARTH.

Another song that springs to mind is the opening track of Young’s anti-Bush record, Living With War. Called After The Garden, the song envisions a scene after the fall, of a human kind doubly banished from an earthly paradise through greed and sucking the Earth dry.

But these are cautionary songs, morality plays in sound and words. A possible reason for their omission is the very fact that they preach rather than simply churn along. Their scope is too narrow and self evident for a record of this complexity.

But these are cautionary songs, morality plays in sound and words.

Repeated listens smooth out the edges of the more bizarre juxtapositions of EARTH. It would seem that Young questions his very own existence and importance in this strangely even musical playing field. The fact that the animals present are at times just as loud as Young and his bandmates creates a strangely soothing dissolution of musical texture and meaning.

It is a caveat, a warning that for all our hysteric chattering and amplified noise, we may one day be drowned out by tides or locusts, that we are but one voice in a symphony that plays out around us every day.

A comforting thought, in all its emotionless certainty.

Neil Young & Promise of The Real play Hartwall Areena, Helsinki this coming Sunday (3rd July)

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