Neil Young - Prairie Wind (2005)


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Neil Young
By Mark Saleski

No harm meant by this remark: I'd rather listen to John Mayer than Elliott Smith. So there, I've said it. Not to illustrate that I've got no indie cred. That I apparently have no taste in music. Not even to piss off the legions of Smith fans.

No, that is not the point. The point ... is that this stuff is completely and utterly subjective. Further, there are really no objective measures for the 'goodness' of the music we love (sorry, Duke Ellington). Do I like Springsteen's “She's The One" over, say “Billy Don't Be A Hero"? Without a doubt. Is one 'better' than the other? I don't think there's an answer. I also don't care that there isn't one.

I bring all of this up because Neil Young has always struck me as one of those love-him-or-hate-him kind of artists. His shaky voice either resonates with you (count me in there) or annoys you. Elliott Smith seems to be such an artist as well. He was a genius. He was boring. Not much middle ground there.

As for Neil Young and my early listening years, I came fairly late in his game. The first record was Rust Never Sleeps. From there I worked my way backwards. Then the 1980s hit and I had to hang on for musical life. From the 'normal' (Comes A Time) to the experimental (Trans), Young has been one thing: sincere. Sometimes, painfully so. Prairie Wind did not divert from that course, from the pain of losing a loved one to political hypocrisy and cynicism to questions of the nature of God—there's not a lot of veneer coating anything here. This is more evident on “Falling Off The Face Of The Earth," during which Young professes his love with a chorus falsetto so brittle and wobbly that you just know he meant it.

A lot of Prairie Wind's instrumentation leaned toward the usual folk/country vein but, as always, there are a few surprises. “Far From Home," an ode to life in rural Canada, mixes in a swaggering horn section, making it seem a little like Neil Young and the Asbury Jukes. The horns resurface on the title track as well. Sure, Young has used horns before ("This Note's For You") but they're torqued up a bit by their mixture with an acoustic-only backing.

“Far From Home" leads into the not particularly surprising, but highly romantic and sentimental “Only A Dream." I'm mostly not a 'lyrics guy,' but this chorus got to me:

It's a dream
Only a dream
And it's fading now
Fading away
It's only a dream
Just a memory without anywhere to stay

Prairie Wind ended with a trio of songs that leave me a little worried about the old guy. “This Old Guitar" takes a gentle look at a physical object that's been a true friend throughout the years. “He Was The King" is a country stomper paying tribute to Elvis (complete with swelling horns and female backup-type singers). The record ends with “When God Made Me," which tosses a lot of pointed questions God's way.

I guess what's worrying me is that Neil's doing an awful lot of looking back. Maybe we all do this more and more as we get on in years (and I suppose if I'd had to deal with things like a brain aneurysm, I'd be looking back a little too), so perhaps I shouldn't worry ... but Neil Young's been through a lot and I'm afraid it was starting to show. Overall, I'd say that this record fits in nicely with his older albums like Harvest and Comes A Time. Think of it as a companion record to Harvest Moon. Maybe not hugely different, but definitely worth checking out.

Neil Young. Elliott Smith. John Mayer. You can play a game of “which of these artists doesn't belong," or you can remember that it's a big world out there ... and we're not likely to agree on anything.

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