In an earlier post, I wrote about the return of Neil Young’s greatest musical foil, the immortal band of rock and roll primitives called Crazy Horse. With his announcement that he was reuniting with his most famous backing band, Neil also hinted that there was a new album on the way, and fans began to drool with the idea of the return of the full, “classic” Crazy Horse sound. Uncle Neil has finally revealed the details of this project, and although it is indeed a new Crazy Horse studio album, it comes with a couple of characteristic curve-balls.
First off, its an album of covers! Neil has never done a full covers record before, so this alone is notable. But wait, there’s more! The songs he has chosen are the oldest, dustiest, most shopworn public domain tunes in the American songbook: “Oh Susanna”, “Clementine”, and “She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain”, and so on. Neil told Rolling Stone: “”They’re songs we all know from kindergarden, but Crazy Horse has rearranged them, and they now belong to us.” The musical concept that emerges in my mind from this statement is of Crazy Horse rocking the shit out of these old tunes, blasting everything with distortion and inserting 10-minute guitar odysseys into every song. But there is one final wrinkle which may dispel or disrupt the idea that this album will sound like all of the classic Horse records: the album also includes vocals from a “very young” children’s choir!
That’s right. We’re about to hear Crazy Horse with a children’s choir. This is an idea that even the most fantasy-prone rock fan would never have come up with. Neil has this uncanny gift for finding weird combinations of musical ideas; sometimes they work, sometime they fail, but they are always interesting, bold, and exciting to experience. It’s typical of Mr. Young’s world, where no creative project is straightforward, and collaboration is treated as a kind of mystical art, like alchemy. In addition to his weird musical ideas, Neil has often used these works to criticize aspects of contemporary or historical culture. As a Canadian, he has often used American culture in a subversive way, using it to criticize and examine its own values. This album is a continuance of this concept. It’s going to be called “Americana”, and I can’t help but think this title is at least semi-ironic or sarcastic. One can read all kinds of things into his decision to record public domain American folk songs with a band that isn’t radio-friendly and a children’s choir. It could be social comment, or a political one, or a comment on the music industry. Most likely it’s all three and more.
Here’s Neil doing “Oh Susanna” at one of his bridge school benefits with Dave Matthews. He’s changed the melodic content of the song quite a bit on this version, making it a lot more dark and haunting than the jaunty tune we’ve all come to know through cartoons and children’s songbooks. This version actually rocks in a pretty savage way; let’s hope this is the sort of direction he took with Crazy Horse.