Ninety-plus minutes of performances recorded live on tour in 2015, then interspersed with sounds of the planet natural (birds and thunder) and manufactured (car traffic and trains), Neil Young's double-CD Earth
documents his social concerns and the synergy he's developed with his most recent accompanists, Lukas Nelson and The Promise of the Real. A song selection spanning the rock icon's career, plus one unreleased number (an ode to the weed movement "Seed Justice" was originally and cryptically titled "I Won't Quit"), contain topical themes he carefully balances alongside the merits of the collective musicianship at work here.
The song from which comes the name of Young's studio album with POTR, The Monsanto Years
(Reprise, 2015) lies in close proximity to "My Country Home," a somewhat lighthearted paean to bucolic joys, even as it precedes "Western Hero," where the composer suggests how outdated are archetypes from American history. The latter tune gains significance from juxtaposition with "Vampire Blues" from On the Beach
(Reprise, 1974), a thinly-disguised critique of the fossil fuel industry, within all of which performances The Promise of the Real remain largely in the background, their instrumental and vocal backup nonetheless sturdy and reliable.
Roadwork has tightened the bond between the six musicians, but only on CD two are there notable examples of their connection as a unit. "Big Box" has an electric guitar solo of some duration and on "People Want to Hear About Love," the ensemble swaggers in such a way Crazy Horse would be proud. But even though the sextet does stretch out on "Love and Only Love," appropriately enough, a selection from the last great album Young made with that group, Ragged Glory
(Reprise, 1990), the improvisation meanders to an end in which ambient noise intermingles with pre-recorded sound effects.
It's a conclusion fully in line with the premise of this album, but hardly a dramatic one. Nevertheless, by the time Earth
concludes, Neil Young and The Promise of The Real have fully and clearly depicted the leader's perceptions of how the human race lives on the planet. Still, it is definitely not the scintillating journey through the past, combined with Young's more contemporary experessions, as were many of the concerts from which these recordings are taken.
"Hippie Dream," for instance, from Landing on Water
(Geffen, 1986), is hardly a vintage deep cut the likes of which startled and overjoyed audiences who attended these concerts. And while the acoustic strumming and high harmonies on "Human Highway" come as close to the classic Neil Young sound as does as do the piano and layered vocals of "After the Gold Rush," (perhaps his definitive environmental commentary), the effect isn't very striking because it's not sustained; their inclusion seems a concession to the audience in hopes of securing listeners' attention to his newer, socially-relevant compositions.
It's arguable that's enough to satiate new and old fans of Neil Young, As with most of his recent projectsStorytone
(Reprise, 2014) somewhat of an exception in its solo piano versionthe idea that looks so good on paper loses some considerable impact in audio form, particularly when the rough-hewn recorded sound is less resonant than the intention at the heart of it.
Mother Earth; Seed Justice; My Country Home; The Monsanto Years; Western Hero; Vampire Blues; Hippie Dream; After The Gold Rush; Human Highway; Big Box; People Want to Hear About Love; Wolf Moon; Love & Only Love.
Neil Young: vocals, guitar, piano, harmonica; Lukas Nelson: vocals, guitar; Micah Nelson: guitar, vocals; Corey McCormick: bass; Anthony LoGerfo: drums; Tato Melgar: percussion.