Here’s one that’s got me properly fired up again, Neil Young Freedom, out in ’89, picked up by me in ’91 after I’d already fallen hard for Ragged Glory (but that’s another story). There are indigenous people in darkest Kundilstan who have no contact with the outside world who can give you the whole story of how after his almost universally disastrous Geffen deal came to an acrimonious end, after a few too many commercial and artistic experiments and failures* and how after the Japanese and A**tralian mini-LP Eldorado, this LP set king Neil firmly back on his throne; so I won’t say a word about that then.
Funnily enough although it’s an album I really liked it just isn’t one I’ve listened to a huge amount, although ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ (rock version) gets high iPod rotation from me. I probably haven’t listened to Freedom as a whole in about 9 years, or so – where do the years go? where are the snows of yesteryear?** It has been a real treat getting reacquainted again.
It’s not an original line but Neil Young has the ability to sound heavier than most metal bands, solo and armed with just an acoustic guitar. The opener ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ (live version) is a brilliant example of this, Young just stands there front and centre with no stylistic devices, or fancy production to shield him and lets the world have it with both barrels, no irony, no distance from his object or his audience, just honesty and real emotion. It’s a rare thing and an even rarer gift to carry it off without hectoring the listener. The propulsion and swing he gets from his acoustic on this track is just awe-inspiring, coupled with that beautiful, broken voice of his I find it utterly irresistible. Many, many bands/artists out there serve 20 years, or more, in the musical trenches without ever even dreaming about a song of this quality, every time I listen to good Neil Young*** it rams home the fact that talent really isn’t doled out equally, it’s a big wheel of fortune.
I had genuinely forgotten how good ‘Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part 1)’ was, a portmanteau movie of a song (if that makes sense) carried along by a unified tune it actually seems short at 8:45. Amongst the vignettes are a grandstanding cop, sleazy record producer, corrupt cop and a boy learning to live without his father, the line ‘Although my home has been broken / It’s the best home I ever had’, gets me every time. However, the key line for me, possibly of the whole LP is one Young gives to one of his characters, an ex-fireman sentenced to life without parole (crime unspecified: freelance hosing?),
Well, I keep gettin’ younger
My life’s been funny that way
Rather prophetic, bearing in mind what Neil did next . I’m also a big, big fan of the discordant, impressionistic stinging squalls of guitar that underwrite the agonized break-up in ‘Don’t Cry’.
I promise I’ll stop gushing in a minute but the next track, the exquisite ‘Hangin’ on a Limb’, featuring Linda Ronstadt’s vocals just floors me emotionally every time. Hell, maybe I’m just a great big Welsh wimp but this one unerringly pierces my hardened emotional carapace and finds the marshmallow within. It’s a gorgeous track, as I interpret it, about optimism in the face of the inevitability of emotional wanderlust and departure, like ‘Freebird’ without any of the machismo, or the three guitar solos etc.etc. I love the line,
She knew he had to go
There was something about freedom
He thought he didn’t know
because there’s a real sense that he (deluded fool, that he is) will only find out that he had real freedom in her love, long after he’s forfeited it. Don’t do it, unnamed protagonist!! Don’t do it, she taught you how to dance, you ungrateful pup!!
Freedom then hits a lull for me, ‘Eldorado’ strays a little too deep into Dire Straits territory, ‘The Ways of Love’ strays too far into country, ‘Someday’ just strays into cod-Springsteen-with-appalling-sound-effects-undermining-what-merits-that-might-otherwise-have-been-lurking-underneath territory and ‘Wrecking Ball’ strays into bar bland county. One, or two others also fail to gain traction, despite being okay and Freedom loses a chunk of momentum. Luckily the woozy regretful ‘Too Far Gone’ rights the ship (We had drugs and we had booze / But we still had something to lose) and sets us up for the big pay off that is to come.
If anyone was entitled to steal Neil Young’s idea of bookending LPs with acoustic/heavy versions of the same song (almost) then it was, umm, Neil Young, although one day I may well pilfer the same idea for my debut LP – regardless, it’s a great concept executed perfectly here. I must have listened to ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ (rock version) over 10 times since yesterday evening and apart from on a treadmill this morning I’ve honestly played air guitar every time^. Despite the added volume of the band and some sublime, urgent soloing the live acoustic version edges it for me in terms of power, but hey that’s like deciding whether to take this week’s pay as a truck full of gold bullion, or just a big bucket of sapphires. It’s every bit as heartfelt, Young’s voice straining and buckling at the edges to contain all that meaning and outrage. It’s electric.
If it wasn’t for the mushy centre there’s an argument that Freedom could have been a real contender for Neil Young’s Top 5 best LPs, for me even without that it isn’t quite sonically inventive, or titanically amazing enough compared to some of his output, to get in there, but hey, that’s a fun debate to be had sometime (now?). However, I have really enjoyed spending some time with Freedom this week warts and all (mine, not his), the highs really are high on this LP and the lows ain’t too bad either^^. But folks, just like the bloody fool in ‘Hangin’ on a Limb’, I’m about to wander off again in my search for the next set of tunes, despite the fact Freedom ‘gave it all she gave’.
*I remember Trans being quite interesting, but that’s based on two listens over 20 years ago, so who knows?
**or the Snowden’s of yesteryear, if you’re a proper Catch-22 fan.
*** it has to be said there’s a certain amount of both average and poor Neil Young out there.
^I’ve never broken out the air guitar on a treadmill, but I do know from bitter personal experience that headbanging (even once) throws your entire balance out when you’re running.
^^apart from ‘Someday’, yuk!