Approaching a new Neil Young album from a critical standpoint is always somewhat of a hiding to nothing. Young�s remarkable career has been pockmarked with era-defining records, atrocious experimentalism, film direction and political opining, sweeping through folk, country, punk, and garage rock and everything in between.
There is simply so much of it – with a myriad number of scrapped records and bootleg live tracks propping up his already enormous canon of work – that it often becomes baffling as to what Young is attempting to achieve with each passing release. This confusion seems now to have seeped into the singer�s work – Chrome Dreams II is, perversely, a follow-up to an unreleased album, peppered with unreleased tracks from years gone by. Confused? You will be.
As one of rock�s most prolific songwriters, with over 40 records to his name, it is unsurprising that much has not lived up to his great triptych of studio records from the early 1970s – After the Goldrush, Harvest and On the Beach. However, to his many fans his idiosyncrasies are the most endearing things about Young – his 1980s experimenting with electronica, rockabilly and even RnB were never completely without merit.
To many of his fans, his greatest folly was bizarrely scrapping the original sessions for Chrome Dreams in 1977, elevating the record, which included some of Young�s strongest work of the decade, quickly into the pantheon of the great ‘lost’ albums like the Beach Boys‘ Smile and The Who�s Lifehouse.
Subsequently, a number of the record�s best songs, Powderfinger, Pocahontas and Like a Hurricane have been made available on Young�s later releases – and, unfortunately, Chrome Dreams II really could have done with a couple of these stone-clad classics to perk it up a little. Anyone looking for another Hurricane will be disappointed – but, for sheer eclecticism, the record hits a number of highs.
Coming in a little like a career-spanning retrospective edited by a belligerently obsessive fan, the �sequel� to Chrome Dreams takes in various off-cuts, re-recorded bootlegs and the odd new song to create a gloriously off-the wall listening experience. You want Rust Never Sleeps-style punk growling? Take the grizzled Dirty Old Man. Harmonica-led folk a-la Harvest? Here�s the swooning Beautiful Bluebird. You want a belligerently uncommercial first single? Here�s the epic Ordinary People, in its 18-minute entirety.
This fan favourite – originally recorded for, and then dropped from, the 1988 anti-corporate treatise This Note�s For You – is the album�s high point, a kind of fanfare for the common man, a swinging trip through modern America of men “rippin’ off the people/ Sellin’ guns to the underground” and “out of work models and a fashion slave/ try to dance away the Michelob night”. It�s a startling tour-de-force that can rightly sit alongside Neil�s best work – and, unlike many of his other long-winded workouts like Cortez the Killer and Like a Hurricane, there is not a vast amount of space for freeform instrumental workouts. For a track that lasts nigh on 20 minutes, there�s little fat on its bones.
The same cannot be said for the 14 minute No Hidden Path, which starts as a heroic, soaring blues rockout, but descends into a long mire of solos and overcooked lyrics. After such a promising opening, it�s a disappointment, as are a couple of the record�s folk numbers. Shining Light in particular is an overly mawkish nursery rhyme that fails to elicit any emotion other than boredom, and Ever After is a pretty mundane country trudge.
However, there are still any number of highlights here for those willing to listen. Boxcar, an offcut from yet another shelved album, 1988�s Times Square, is a beautifully atmospheric hobo-hymn to the joys of hitching cross country, which builds quietly into Heart of Gold-esque territory. Of the rock numbers, Dirty Old Man sits alongside the best of Crazy Horse�s feedback-drenched back catalogue, Young screaming “It�s a battle against the bottle/ and I win alright”, and Spirit Road is overlong, but at times you can hear the genius behind (Keep On) Rocking in the Free World showing his hand.
Somewhat fittingly, after a fractured, confused record that never seems to know exactly what decade it exists in, the last track on the record, The Way, is an astonishingly simple plea for direction in a bewildering world. Backed by a children�s choir and a piano, it is a heartbreakingly straightforward way to close an album that is anything but.