Release Date: Jun 24, 2016
Record label: Reprise
The cawing of a crow, the buzzing of bees, the distant howl of a lone wolf. Is anyone really surprised to hear these sounds on Neil Young’s new live album? Old Mr. Young has been singing about nature and Mother Earth for so long, that he probably felt that it was long past due to invite some of the creatures that have been his muses to step up and perform on one of his records.
Neil Young used his union with the Promise of the Real -- the gangly crew fronted by Willie Nelson's kids Lukas and Micah -- to tackle weighty social problems on The Monsanto Years, a record supported by a relatively expansive tour. Earth, a double album culled from 2015 performances, goes one further, mining ecologically minded Young tunes and then addressing them to mother earth herself. According to Young, the catch is, "our animal kingdom is well represented in the audience as well, and the animals, insects, birds, and mammals actually take over the performances of the songs at times." This is an understatement.
Neil Young has been many things over the last five years: High-quality audio preservationist. Prolific memoirist. Reassessed film director. Leader of a reunited Crazy Horse. Jack White collaborator. Serial archivist. All of which is to say, among these positions, you might not find “acclaimed ….
Live album with added animal noises. On one level, this is just another Neil Young live album where he does some of his slow whiny ones and some of his lengthy squealy-guitar rock-outs and enjoys himself greatly, not especially concerned whether you do too. But on another, it’s weird and astonishing. Because he’s overlaid some (not all) tracks with the sounds of animals and insects – birds, bears, crickets, bees, wolves – so it’s like listening to a typical Neil album while sitting in a densely populated zoo.
Mother Earth is more than Neil Young's title heroine here; she is an instrument too. Recorded live last year with his current, youngblood combo, the 13 songs – all pulled from the ecology section of Young's library – are overdubbed with choral gleam, extra guitar drama and noisy approval by a peanut gallery of livestock, turkeys, insects and crows. There is also rolling thunder and hard rain, hinting at the payback to come.
For those who found 2015’s The Monsanto Years a relentless barrage (Young names the GMO conglomerate so many times, the effect is almost to advertise, rather than decry them), its sister album, recorded on tour with the group that backed Young in the studio, is less unremitting – but no less focused. Though a third of the tracklist comes from The Monsanto Years, the remainder, from My Country Home to After The Gold Rush, bolster the message: we’ve got Mother Nature on the run. If Earth is wholly focused in theme, it’s sometimes scattershot in execution.
Sat in the pub little more than a week ago with a friend and fellow Drowned in Sound hack, I was struck by jealousy. He was crashing at mine before an early flight out to Denmark for the Roskilde festival (and has probably by now filed his review before your tardy critic): 'Neil Young has got a two-hour slot,' he told me. Smug bastard, I thought. 'Well a quarter of that will probably be "Love and Only Love"' I snarked back, recalling a Ragged Glory-heavy set the only time I’d seen Young, at Hyde Park two years ago.
More barn, indeed.Another in a string of rather startlingly batshit releases from one of popular music's most unlikely superstars, this faux-live double album will likely hold no interest for anyone who isn't already along for the ride. And even for fans open to Neil Young's flights of fancy, this thing may well land with a resounding thud.Earth is a fundamentally frustrating album. A career-spanning collection of Young's environmentalist anthems dating back to the early 1970s, all recorded live with new band Promise of the Real, it could have been a worthy, if inessential, entry in his catalogue (like most of his records over the past 20 years, really).
The Upshot: Ragged and raging live album featuring Promise of the Real, it finds the chameleonic Young at least as concerned with the message as he is the music. Neil Young has done his share of proselytizing over the course of his career, but never more so then he has recently. Last year’s Monsanto Years found him railing against corporate concerns and their poisoning of the year’s natural resources.
Unveiled amidst considerable promotional fanfare - including staunch audio purist Neil Young’s now-obligatory dig at iTunes - this live album comprises a thematically-aligned grab bag of songs from the 70-year-old Canadian’s vast back catalogue, interspersed with a slightly unsettling selection of David Attenborough-style “sounds of the earth. ” There are already at least a couple of landmark live (or semi-live) LPs in the Neil Young canon. 1979’s half-acoustic, half-electric Rust Never Sleeps sets the bar high, being described by the NME’s Nick Kent as “arguably the finest of Young’s career.