Two years ago, Neil Young suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm. He followed it with one of the most beautiful albums of his career, "Prairie Wind" (2005), and then one of the angriest, "Living With War" (2006).
Now comes "Chrome Dreams II" (Reprise), in which Young makes his version of a gospel album - which, of course, doesn't sound like anyone else's idea of a gospel album. Life may be a "spirit road," but where does it end and what is the point? Coming face-to-face with one's own mortality, as Young did in 2005, will prompt a man to ask such questions.
But "Chrome Dreams II" also is a Young-ian discourse on the way human beings struggle and screw up along the path to enlightenment. "Some are saints, and some are jerks - that's me," Young sings. Its tone veers from gentle and prayerful to feisty and downright ugly. Its messy mood swings recall mix-and-match Young albums from the'70s such as "American Stars'N Bars" and "Rust Never Sleeps," with the Canadian-born singer drawing on styles, songs and musicians from across his career.
The core band consists of one member each from several of his key backing bands: Crazy Horse (drummer Ralph Molina), the Stray Gators (Ben Keith) and the Bluenotes (bassist Rick Rosas). The album title is a reference to the aborted "Chrome Dreams" album from the mid-'70s, which featured early versions of some of his greatest songs. In addition, several "II" songs were written, recorded and shelved by Young decades ago, only to be resurrected for this album: "Beautiful Bluebird" dates from "Old Ways" (1985), and "Ordinary People" and "Boxcar" from "This Note's For You" (1988).
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This spirit of reflection, of looking back across his life to see what still matters to him, runs through the new album. His pleas for spiritual guidance come in many forms: country ballads ("Boxcar," "Beautiful Bluebird," "Ever After"), gently swaying soul ("Shining Light," "The Believer"), thundering guitar workouts ("Spirit Road," "No Hidden Path") and a lullaby with children's choir ("The Way").
"I don't know where I'm goin'/Show me now, I'm waiting to see you," Young sings on "Shining Light." It's a question Young has been trying to answer his entire career, and the sense that he can't settle down, that he flits from style to style like a moth lost in a light bulb factory, is the key to his appeal, and also the root of his failures.
The song "Ordinary People" was ready to go 20 years ago, but Young waited until now to finally put it on an album. "Some songs ... need to wait for the right time," he explains cryptically in the liner notes. Over nine verses and 18 minutes, Young the songwriter morphs into his Bernard Shakey moviemaker persona, his camera eye panning across the American landscape to glimpse the lives of blue-collar workers, boxers, vigilantes, gun runners, mafia dons and corrupt businessmen. It sounds at times like a big mess, hampered by a gratuitous horn section, but Young's conviction, punctuated by several deranged guitar solos, gives it a kaleidoscopic grandeur.
Amid a couple of songs that lift Carter Family-like questions to a higher power, there's a rant from a "Dirty Old Man." It's a bristling garage-rocker about a not-so-nice man. He drinks, he carouses with the boss' wife, he drinks some more. But his knees ache and he's trying to get fit, stay employed, quit the bottle. He's irascible, prickly, unpredictable and looking for a little tenderness amid the wreckage his life has become.
The Dirty Old Man is the key to understanding Young's version of gospel music. If you're going to meet your maker sooner rather than later, Young suggests, make sure you do it on your own terms.