Neil Young News
By David Segal
Album review originally published on washingtonpost.com.
A vanity project gone stupefyingly wrong, "Greendale" tells a dull and rambling story through dour and monotonous songs. For a younger artist, it would be a career killer, an album that any sane label would shelve and write off as a failed experiment. But this is the work of Neil Young, a legend with a full account of goodwill to draw on. For all but hard-core fanatics, "Greendale" will just about zero out the balance.
If it sounds like Young wrote these 10 tunes on the daily drive to the studio, that's because he did. And if the tale seems to unfold more like a rough draft than a polished yarn, that's because it is. On his Web site, Young explains that he followed the creative example of his novelist father, who told his son long ago that he was merely a vessel for the paragraphs he typed. Neil just showed up at the studio, he explains on NeilYoung.com, without any idea where the next song would take this story.
"It's not my business to know," he explains in a downloadable monologue. "I'm just working for somebody."
Young surely means some deity here, because he isn't working for us. "Greendale" laboriously recounts the decline of the Greens, a California family hounded to tragedy by the media and the cops. The trouble starts when young Jed Green is pulled over in his car for a taillight violation while toting considerable sums of cocaine and pot. In a panic, instead of handing over his license and registration, he shoots a cop, landing himself in jail. This leads to a frenzy of attention from the TV stations, which clamor for comment from other family members.
Especially Grandpa Green, a salty cur who shrugs off a TV correspondent and winds up face down on the sidewalk, a victim of all the stress and bustle. His last words, strangely enough, seem to be about Neil Young:
"That guy who just keeps singing, can't somebody shut him up!"
Not a bad exit question, sir. Clocking in at a stupefying 13 minutes, "Grandpa's Interview" is a song that's 10 minutes too long. Meantime, Jed's sister, Sun, is so infuriated that she welds herself to a statue in some building lobby and, with the help of a bullhorn, denounces an unnamed politician. ("Hey Mr. Clean, you're dirty now too!") Exactly how "Mr. Clean" is to blame either for a homicidal brother or a grandpa-felling reporter isn't explained. The FBI raids Sun's home and kills her cat. She heads to Alaska with a guy named Earth.
Happily ever after? Hard to know, impossible to care. Young has a sentimental affection for his characters, but he seems too interested in decrying the Powers That Be to make the Greens seem real. They feel more like allegories than people, which is why they never come across as worthy, or in need, of our sympathies.
Musically, "Greendale" is as thin and meandering as its plot; nearly all the songs are just three chords of electric guitar, some humble bass notes and a bit of drowsy, mid-tempo drumming. (The lone exception, "Carmichael," is the strongest track, but it's a ringer for "Hangin' on a Limb" from Young's 1989 classic "Freedom.") A few of these tunes amble past the 10-minute mark, with most of the time eaten up by long interludes of Young noodling on his six-string. The whole thing is an obese 78 minutes long. A troupe of dancers was brought along for the tour that debuted the songs of "Greendale" earlier in the summer, which seems hard to believe now that the album is here. It's like bringing in the Ice Capades to zest up a eulogy.
What's most embarrassing is the lyrics, which fumble the tough work of weaving plot into song, or sound as if they were composed with an egg-timer deadline. "Jed pulled the trigger, in a second tragic blunder," he sings on "Leave the Driving," describing the fateful moment that will wreck the Greens forever. With a whole family at stake, couldn't Young have rummaged around for something that rhymed?
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8184.)
© 2003 The Washington Post Company
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