Quite a despair

Neil Young and Pearl Jam create the perfectly imperfect Mirror Ball

Eddie Vedder and the boys had always proclaimed a deep love and admiration for Young, and he reciprocated by lending them his demons when Vedder's were not enough. In Pearl Jam, Young has found a group of musicians perfectly suited to his words--a younger Crazy Horse, less crazy perhaps but a band that can keep up with the master. Mirror Ball is a reckless and messy album--chords piled upon chords, guitar solos that devolve into dissonant heaps, a barreling and out-of-control train of sound that threatens to fly off the tracks around every bend.

It's as if Pearl Jam, perfectionists who sound tight and clean even when they try to come off garage-sloppy, listened to every Young album with Crazy Horse and felt the need to up the ante. It recalls Warren Zevon's 1987 "comeback" Sentimental Hygiene, which featured a Michael Stipe-less R.E.M. on backup. The album, on which Zevon also looked back without any regrets and pondered the mystery of life through death, was the musician's best album in years; he seemed rejuvenated by the young men behind him, and they seemed even more forceful in his presence.

And so Mirror Ball is Tonight's the Night and Zuma and Ragged Glory turned up even louder--a howl instead of a yell, defiance instead of anger, a man whose fixation on death always gives way to a struggle for life. The songs, hastily recorded in two two-day sessions earlier this year, usually begin where most songs end--at the exploding climax, at the place where instruments and voice blend together into an indecipherable buzz, everything melting into this gorgeous, raging beast.

This is music meant to be heard loud, so deafening is it even when played low. If nothing else, Young has remained the most consistent rocker of his--or any other generation--because he loves the power of this music, the sheer and inexorable pleasure caused by such ear-shattering and all-consuming pain. To listen to Young's music is to understand he doesn't adhere to the cliche of finding beauty in chaos because he believes beauty and chaos to be interchangeable terms.

Mirror Ball picks up where Tonight's the Night (released 20 years ago) and Sleeps with Angels left off, with Young again seizing death and despair by the neck, exorcising the anguish of loss and hopelessness with a sound loud enough to scare off any lingering demons. Only for Young, those demons are in his heart and head forever; it's a battle always fought but never won, with album after album delving deep into an unspecified pain that keeps resurfacing just when you thought it was beaten.

As he once told Rolling Stone, he writes songs "about the ability to survive and continue and grow and get higher than you were before, not just maintain, not just feel well. Not just, 'I'm alive at 45.'" He is among a handful of veterans who not only sustained a viable career, but never lacked something to say. Like Richard Thompson and Zevon, Young has persevered because he knows it's not enough to survive anymore; leave that to the hacks and buffoons who ply their wares on the nostalgia-act circuit, the washed-up recreating old glories for the burned-out.

No, Young has done more than survive--he has lived, an act made even harder when you are surrounded by death and the "holy wars" of which he sings on Mirror Ball. He has lived for his children, two of whom suffer from cerebral palsy, and for similarly inflicted children at the Bridge School; he has lived for his wife. He has lived for those fellow travelers who seek answers to the same questions and solace in the same answers; and he has lived, most of all, for himself--even when, at times, it seemed so easy to give up.

Young has stayed true to himself even when the truth was painful (Tonight's the Night, Sleeps with Angels); he has believed in his vision even when it was blurry (the cold and bloodless Trans, the rockabilly knock-off Everybody's Rockin'). He has never relented: he has watched as friends (Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, roadie Bruce Berry), heroes (Elvis), and young men he admired and respected (Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain) have gone to sleep with angels--victims of drug overdoses and suicides, riding "out on the mainline," as he sang on Tonight's the Night.

Young--who suffered childhood bouts with polio, epilepsy, and diabetes--always ponders how he made it through, but never with the self-serving "Why did I make it?"; rather, it's more like a defiant and strong, "Why the fuck not?" For Young, the past is a place for which he holds great affection, profound sadness, and also tremendous disdain: he would rather march onward into a new day carrying his guitar in one hand and an old amp in the other, drowning out the echoes of the past with yet another unapologetic guitar solo that lasts forever--and even then it's not long enough.

Though it lasts only a few seconds, "What Happened Yesterday" lays out Neil Young's declaration of intent. It's a simple song with Young accompanying himself on a pump organ, his voice that familiar falsetto of his "folk" material, but it is haunting and cleansing all at once: "Can't forget what happened yesterday/Though all my friends say don't look back/I can feel it coming through me/Like an echo/Like a photograph." Those are the song's only words, and like that he has wiped clean the slate. Young is a man who finds no refuge in memories, only in the knowledge the bad ones can be replaced every day by better ones.

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