Neil Young: Great songwriter? More or less

If there’s one thing you can say about Neil Young it’s that he’s the gift that keeps giving. And giving. And giving. Neil seems to be one of the few people who has never heard the phrase “less is more”. Sadly, this means his career has become a very good example of “more is less”.

The man is prolific. At last count, he had released 45 studio albums since 1968. That’s an awful lot of albums, especially when you consider that Bob Dylan, who has been making albums since 1962, has only released 39. Bob has released some clunkers over his career but Neil has taken it to another level.

Young, let’s not forget, is probably the only artist to have been sued by his then record company for making albums that were “unrepresentative”. In other words, for making music that wasn’t Neil Young music. Quite how Geffen Records expected to stand that up in a court of law is anybody’s guess when, for much of his career, Young seems to have been on an intermittent quest to make “unrepresentative” music.

Not that he doesn’t have a representative sound – or rather two particular sounds. There’s the sweet, melodic and tuneful acoustic singer/songwriter persona that permeates much of his best work. No wonder Crosby Stills & Nash were so keen to have him on board even though, to be brutally honest, he didn’t have as “good” a voice as the other three because of the slightly whiny, quavery quality to Young’s singing.

The other side of Young is the loud rocker bashing out epic, heavy, grungy sounding tunes with squalling one-note guitar solos, typified by songs like Hey Hey My My (Into The Black), Rockin’ In The Free World, Like A Hurricane, Cinnamon Girl, Cortez The Killer, Powderfinger and Southern Man.

Most of his career has been a balancing act between the two, sometimes on individual albums, such as After The Goldrush and Rust Never Sleeps, but more widely in terms of his album releases, ranging from the largely acoustic Harvest to the decidedly grimy rock of Tonight’s The Night and Time Fades Away. Every Harvest Moon or Comes A Time is counter-balanced by a Re-Actor or Ragged Glory.

He loves lengthy guitar workouts but, in some cases, he plays like a man who only knows to end a song several minutes after everyone else wishes he had. People complain about Dylan’s long songs but how many of them have sat through nine minutes of Down By The River, 10 minutes of Cowgirl In The Sand, 18 minutes of Ordinary People, nearly 15 minutes of Change Your Mind and 27 minutes of Drifin’ Back.

He really isn’t that good a guitarist. In fact, he has a much better lead guitarist playing mostly rhythm alongside him in Crazy Horse in the person of Nils Lofgren. Young’s not adverse to sprawling acoustic songs either, such as The Last Trip To Tulsa, Ambulance Blues, Will To Love and Natural Beauty. None of them ranks as the masterpiece that their length might suggest they should be.

That’s not to say he hasn’t written great songs. There’s usually at least one on most of his albums. More or less. After The Goldrush contains several, Harvest has a couple and we can argue whether they are Out On The Weekend and The Needle And The Damage Done or not, Tonight’s The Night has the title track and one of my favourite guitar solos ever – played by Lofgren – on a song called Speakin’ Out. Time Fades Away has no great songs but an aura all of its own, American Stars & Bars has Like A Hurricane, Zuma has Cortez The Killer, Comes A Time has some lovely Young country songs (including Lotta Love) and Rust Never Sleeps has My My Hey Hey and Powderfinger.

As with so many of the great singer/songwriters of the 60s and 70s, the 80s were far more messy and unfocused for Young. It was during that decade that Geffen launched the infamous lawsuit against the singer/songwriter. When he left Geffen records, Young released Freedom and Ragged Glory in fairly quick succession and both were viewed as returns to form while, with songs like Unknown Legend and From Hank To Hendrix, Harvest Moon, the sequel to Harvest, was an improvement on its much-loved predecessor.

The first Young album I bought was Harvest. The last one I purchased was Greendale. I know the first one nearly off by heart. I’m not sure if I have even listened to the other one all the way through. Unlike some of his peers, I have not found myself waiting for the release of any of his subsequent albums with much anticipation.

Back in 1979, Young famously sang “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.” It sounded good at the time but here in 2023, months after the release of his latest album, it’s clear he hasn’t taken his own advice. Or maybe he has. After all, Young is also the man who sang: “Keep on rockin’ in the free world.”