Recorded at Masterlink, Nashville on March 19, 2005
It would be 2005 before we got another good Neil Young album.
That’s not as bad as it sounds, I guess. First off, Broken Arrow was his last album of the 20th century, unless you count 1999’s CSN&Y album, Looking Forward, which I don’t even remember, so I guess I don’t.
But even a glance at the always helpful timeline on the invaluable Neil Young Archives shows an absolute paucity of studio recording during that period, and no lost albums.
So maybe it was the fact that it was recorded in spurts from 1997-1999 that make 2000’s Silver and Gold so unmemorable outside of the title track and “Razor Love,” which at least had some momentum. Also unmemorable: 2002’s Are You Passionate?, recorded in two spurts — May & November — in 2001 after Neil shelved an entire Crazy Horse album called Toast, in between which the entire universe seemingly changed.
While one of my all-time favorite Neil Young live bootlegs is a broadcast of one of the shows of the tour he took with Booker T & The MGs in 1993, they proved particularly ineffective as a backing band, which even Neil knew, as he brought 2/3 of Crazy Horse back onboard for Greendale, the incredibly ambitious “audio novel” he put out in 2003.
Honestly, it maybe should have been a real novel. For some reason, Neil didn’t think that the Greendale songs need a rhythm guitar, so there was no Poncho Sampedro, and as a result, the music seemed thin. The fact that many of the songs were warmed-over blues shuffles that lasted over 10 minutes didn’t really help, as Neil clearly need the long songs in order to get all of his story in, but in the end, only the final track, “Be The Rain,” would make even the lower reaches of his canon, and even that song starts off with “Save the planet for another day” and features Neil yelling at clouds with a bullhorn.
I’m sure that there are some of y’all who love it, but not me: I think it’s the weakest of all of the records he did with Crazy Horse.
So Neil decamped to Nashville for the first time since Old Ways with old mates Ben Keith, Spooner Oldham, Chad Cromwell and Rick Rosas and wrote an album about grappling with both the death of his father, but also his own mortality, as he’d recently had an operation for an aneurysm, though as a dude who was having epileptic seizures onstage with Buffalo Springfield, his own mortality was never too far from his mind.
See the bluebird fly easy as a dream
Dipping and bobbing in the sun
Could she be the one I saw so long ago
Could she be the one to take me home
This pasture is green
I’m walking in the sun
It’s turning brown
I’m standing in the rain
My overcoat is worn
The pockets are all torn
I’m moving away from the pain
That said, the multi-layered rambling “No Wonder” felt like both a return to the Harvest / Harvest Moon sound and a continuation of it at the same time. Not only did it make extensive use of pedal steel and organ — as well as a smart, expansive guitar part from Neil — there was also a whole choir people doing backing vocals.
The clock on the wall
No wonder we’re losing time
The old church bell
The bride and her love
Seeking guidance from above
In the end, “No Wonder” shifts gears into what could almost be termed as an acoustic rave-up, with Keith’s pedal steel battling it out with Clinton Gregory’s fiddle, while Karl Himmel’s drums subtly drive them all. Like most of my favorite songs on Prairie Wind — “Painter,” “It’s A Dream,” “Prairie Wind” and even the more jokey “He Was The King” — “No Wonder” drove a perfect bargain between being overdone and utterly sparse.
“No Wonder” performed live in 2005
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