Rock’n'roll is starting to show its age. Elvis is long gone, only two of the Beatles are still alive, those at the forefront of the ’60s “Golden Age” aren’t far from receiving a free bus pass and pension book. How does a youthful medium, fixated on teenage dreams and the myth of dying young, deal with the onset of illness and those long suppressed feelings of mortality? Liam Gallagher may still believe that he is going to live forever but those feelings of hubris have long been extinguished in the battle scarred veterans of the 1960s.
Lately, Neil Young has had personal reasons to contemplate his place in the grand scheme of things. Earlier this year he was diagnosed with a brain aneurysm (but has since been given a clean bill of health), and he also lost his father. Fighting fit he may now be, but the gentle taping of the Grim Reaper’s scythe echoes throughout Prairie Wind.
From the opening finger picked guitar that ushers in Painter it’s clear that Young is in a reflective state of mind. When he hits the beautiful high notes singing “it’s a long road behind me, it’s a long road ahead” and the harmonies unfurl around an aching pedal steel it’s enough to melt you heart. The pedal steel guitar playing on the whole record is breath taking. It surfaces again on Here For You and the broken lament of Falling off The Face of the Earth. The texture, the pure ache, adds a timeless feel to the material. It dips them in sliver plated melancholia and wraps them tightly in a warm embrace.
The heavy trademark guitars that Young does so well arrive on the corrosive No Wonder. He has the talent of King Midas in reverse; taking golden melodies and then tarnishing them in thick charcoal angst. This is a complement. Few have the balls to wreck a melody the way Neil Young does. It starts so gently, a fragile guitar figure, fresh as a spring morning flickers softly through the verse, then down swoops the power chords, spinning blasts of noise across the song. The added bite is unleashed through the dual pronged attack of acoustic and electric guitars. The solo at the end sounds like the gates of heaven swinging on rusty hinges. The lyric centres on the refrain “tick-tock, the clock on the wall, no wonder we’re losing time”. The changing instrumentation reflects this, its equal measures regret and anger.
The ghost of the late great Jack Nitzsche is evoked on It’s A Dream. The string-drenched ennui and plaintive piano recall the arrangements that he scored for Young on the classics After The Gold Rush and Harvest. The strings slowly climb, never overpowering the vocals, the melody spun like a spider web in the rain, its delicate nature glistening on each successive listen.
The lyrics keep returning to family, friends and the very nature of existence. He mourns his father on the title track, the opening couplet “Trying to remember what my Daddy said, before too much time took away his head…” summing up the mood of reflection. Young uses his guitar like a hammer, adding a thump to proceedings. The vocals are again a thing of wonder, the chorus with its choir of female voices and soulful brass pitch the song into the realms of a classic.
The closing track is pure Neil Young magic. The hymnal piano and gospel styling recall the title track from After the Gold Rush. Where Young once agonised over environmental issues he now addresses his own fate. It’s a set of questions to God, an attempt to place himself within this world and the next. Naked and honest, not bleak, simply uplifting.
Prairie Wind clearly indicates that Neil Young is far from a spent force. The brush with death has refocused his muse. The fire is far from out. The Godfather of grunge is back on the throne. Long may he reign.