By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
There have been many different Neils in Young's career: the icy jazzbo pretender of This Note's For You and the earnest techno explorer of Trans; rockabilly reinvention vs. hard-rock revisionism and folkie perseverance; doper sociology played against cowboy myth and urban poetry. You'd be hard-pressed to reconcile them all, but luckily you don't really have to. As Broken Arrow makes clear, the Real Neil plays with Crazy Horse.
Now that Young has stopped mining superfluous street cred' by hanging out with youngsters (i.e., Mirrorball), he and Crazy Horse return to form with an album that combines the howling amp-rattling of Young's last 15 years and the bleakly vulnerable poetry and wounded-troubadour persona of the first decade of his career. Not as brightly aggressive as 1990's Ragged Glory, this album is as unabashedly electric as Live Rust, yet more subdued. Not lazy, but deliberate, Arrow avoids the quick, punchy payoff in favor of the slow accumulation of feeling.
"I'm still living the dream we had/for me it's not over," Young sings on "Big Time," the album's opening track, and all of a sudden none of his ruptured characterizations matter as much as the stubborn honesty of that introductory line. Arrow is a return to the Real Neil, the one who has a feel for the tonal subtleties found in feedback and distortion unmatched in rock. There are the country-stomp tales of everyman life ("Loose Change"); "Music Arcade" is a solo acoustic sing-along that still seems hopeful despite the implied disappointment of the lyrics. Young manages to take his songwriting seriously even while indulging in conventions of the "I'm a little bit low/a little bit high" sort ("Scattered"). As Gene Vincent proved, if you can make it sound good--or a certain way--it doesn't matter, a philosophy which probably explains Young's album-closing cover of the Jimmy Reed chestnut, "Baby What You Want Me to Do," delivered complete with boisterous bar-crowd noise and a boomy mix that almost smothers the vocals and makes the moaning question of the song's title even more plaintive in its isolation.
This is the Young behind all the other Neils, whether they're robot folkies or deracinated survivors; an artist confident enough to strike at will, as comfortable raiding Reed's oeuvre as he is referencing--and retreading--his own. That's the thing about retreads that often make them preferable to their newly minted brothers: It's a brand-new pattern you hear running over the road, but it's attached to something that's already proven its strength and longevity.