Release Date: Nov 4, 2014
Record label: Reprise
Genre(s): Folk, Blues, Singer/Songwriter, Pop/Rock, Album Rock, Rock & Roll, Roots Rock, Country-Rock, Heartland Rock, Contemporary Blues
Brace yourself: The pioneer of grunge has gone grand. And he’s finally singing about his divorce as well. On Neil Young’s new album, out Tuesday, a man long revered for toggling between beat-up acoustic ballads and screaming psychedelic rockers hands over many of his songs to an erudite and precise 93-piece orchestra. Even more compellingly, he breaks his silence about his split from his wife of 36 years, Pegi, and his reported relationship with 1980s film icon Daryl Hannah.
Neil Young’s fifth album in as many years comes in a “standard” version that defies any expectation raised by that word. Its backing band is a full orchestra and choir, whose gooey strings and slangy swing make standard stuff like guitar solos surplus to requirement. The “deluxe” edition pairs this with Young’s acoustic demos: not at all deluxe, just naked and heartfelt.
One of the busiest sexegenarians in the game, Neil Young’s 35th album, and second of the year, is comprised of two ten-track records: one solo acoustic, the other backed by a Disney worthy orchestra and big band. In-between April’s ‘A Letter Home’ (recorded in a renovated 1947 vinyl-recording booth with Jack White at Third Man Records), his ongoing divorce proceedings and launching music download service Pono, he’s crafted a tender and often forlorn eco-treatise. It skips between the deeply political and the delicately personal.
I am a sentimental person, and sometimes this clouds my judgment. I have loved and admired Neil Young’s music for more than 40 years. His songs have enriched my life more than I could say. There aren’t many topics from pot to the pipeline on which we disagree. If I were writing to recommend him ….
Less than a year after he released A Letter Home, a '60s-heavy covers album recorded inside Jack White's 1947 Voice-O-Graph vinyl recording booth, Neil Young is back with another totally different (yet still idiosyncratic) recording project. Storytone is a collection of ten new Young songs presented two ways: solo and symphonic. The solo side isn't just acoustic guitar, mind you; there is also piano, harmonica, electric guitar, and what sounds like resonator guitar and ukulele in the mix.
Neil YoungStorytone(Warner)Rating: 3. 5 out of 5 stars Let’s review the prolific and somewhat bizarre past three years of Neil Young’s recording career, shall we? There was a Crazy Horse-accompanied ride through some classic American folk songs (Americana). Crazy Horse then came back for a speaker-shredding collection of elongated electric guitar freakouts (Psychedelic Pill.
There are not one but two Neil Young albums going by the name Storytone; one lush and orchestral, and one solo acoustic. The former is the event, where Young sings of planetary pillage, Chicago, cars and new love (he is divorcing his wife of 36 years and stepping out with Daryl Hannah) alongside strings. Young’s fans are a long-suffering lot, but this is an unprecedented curveball.
Storytone arrived at the end of a year that already saw another new Neil Young album -- that would be A Letter Home, a collection of folk covers recorded at Jack White's Voice-O-Graph direct-to-vinyl recording booth at Third Man Records -- which itself was only the tip of the iceberg that was Neil's 2014. That spring, Young launched a high-end digital audio system called Pono, which was followed by the summer news that he was divorcing Pegi, his wife of 36 years, an event that led to a fresh feud with David Crosby that then led to Young saying he would never play with CSN again and, if that weren't enough, Young also published his second book, Special Deluxe: A Memoir of Life & Cars, just prior to the release of Storytone. That'd be enough to sustain a few years for most artists but we all know perfectly well that Neil Young isn't like most artists.
If I were to tell you that Neil Young’s album Storytone comes with some very biting and direct lyrics, you would probably respond with something along the lines of “Yes. And cows go ‘moo’, dogs go ‘woof’ and cats go ‘meow’. What else you got?” That’s a fair enough question. But what if I were to tell you that a majority of the album was recorded with an orchestra? And some of the other ones had a swinging big band behind his voice? And that on Storytone’s deluxe edition, you hear each song recorded again with Young’s voice backed up by only one instrument such as a piano, resonator or ukulele? Storytone is kind of a paradox.
Neil Young's independent streak has only gotten more and more pronounced as he's gotten older. But while he's produced more spotty genre experiments and half-efforts in the last 15 years than he has truly memorable albums, one can easily view those missteps less as black marks on his unwieldy discography and more as forgivable, even endearing, manifestations of his off-the-wall personality. So it's hard to get too worked up about the softheaded schmaltz and flaccid white-boy blues that make up Storytone, most of which Young, in his latest fit of experimentation, recorded with the aid of a full orchestra, occasionally augmented by a choir or brass band.
Even for an artist with the mercurial track record of Neil Young, this has been a pretty strange year. Since turning 68 last November, Young has become a tech startup figurehead, an enemy of Canadian conservatives and oil companies, a second-time author, and a watercolor artist. He’s done a European tour with a modified Crazy Horse, U.S. shows all by his lonesome, and recorded a no-fi covers collection with Jack White.
“Tone” is the key word in the title of Neil Young’s latest studio album, as he’s released it in two tonally opposite formats. With the standard version, you get live orchestral arrangements of 10 new songs, whereas the deluxe edition includes a bonus disc of more stripped-down takes. Same stories, different tones. The blues number “Like You Used To”, for instance, is full of old-guy swagger when backed by a full brass section.
Neil Young's only style is doing what he wants, with zero fucks given about anyone's co-sign. And sure, these mirrored LPs – 10 songs given lavish orchestral arrangements and also offered as solo performances on a bonus disc – might be stronger as one cherry-picked set of unrepeated songs. But it wouldn't be half as interesting. This is Young in full late bloom.
Neil Young spent a tricky 80s flirting with a bunch of musical styles – old-time country, rockabilly, blues-rock, new wave – that didn’t quite fit. He may not have had much to say; perhaps figured the genre exercise might distract from the quality of the work. In the 2010s, though, he’s got plenty on his mind, but seems content to drench his recordings in production techniques that draw too much attention to themselves: Daniel Lanois’ signature guitar tangles on Le Noise; try-hard crackly authenticity on A Letter Home; and now mawkish big-band strings courtesy of Michael Bublé/American Idol arranger Chris Walden.
“Storytone” is, for one thing, Neil Young’s latest experiment in arranging: 10 new songs recorded with orchestral or big-band accompaniment, played and sung together, live in studios. It comes in single- and double-album versions; the double adds solo performances of the same songs. The ….
When Neil Young sang “I’m Glad I Found You” last month on the first of his two nights at Citi Wang Theatre, the stranger next to me leaned in to whisper: “OK, maybe I was a little hard on him before. He sounds really happy.” She had been upset about Young’s personal affairs, that he had split with his wife of 36 years and was now reportedly dating Daryl Hannah. She was right: This new song, so simple and direct, suggested Young is happy, maybe even at peace.
Neil Young's brilliant if confounding career has a messy inconsistency, brimming with genius but also toss-offs, digressions and disasters. A few would-be duds ("On the Beach," "Trans") proved their value over time, if not quite up to par with the classics ("Rust Never Sleeps," "Ragged Glory," "Tonight's the Night," etc.). Others ("Landing on Water," "Everybody's Rockin'") still sound misguided.
At this point in his nearly 50 year career, the predictability of Neil Young’s unpredictability is a given. With the fortunate exception of rap and hip-hop, there’s no genre that Young hasn’t attempted, although oftentimes the results of his eclectic experimentation can be less than satisfying. Storytone tends to yield similar results even despite occasional moments of songwriting brilliance.
If A Letter Home, Neil Young’s Jack White-produced album from earlier this year that was recorded entirely in a 1947 vinyl recording booth, felt lived in, his latest release, Storytone, feels completely fabricated at just about every turn. At the heart of A Letter Home was something remarkable: For the first time in a long time, Young sounded like an artist with a renewed passion. He sounded at home, his nasally voice, losing its force as he ages, rumbling confidently alongside the vinyl scratches and static.