I've been running into a lot of Neil Young skeptics lately. I don't know what it is — something in the water, I guess — but I feel like I've been defending my love of the Canadian folk-rock legend too often.
His critics always have the same gripes — his distinctively nasally voice, his politically brash lyrics, his tendency toward guitar noodling, his admittedly uneven output in recent years. He's an imperfect artist, no doubt, but that's sort of what appeals to me. He's driven by a mad vision and doesn't care what anybody thinks.
By my count, he has released about, oh, a billion songs over his long career, including bizarre detours into electronica, rockabilly and film soundtracks. In celebration of Young's upcoming Inland Northwest stop, I tried to pick some of my favorite underrated tracks buried in his vast catalog.
"Birds," After the Gold Rush (1970)
Young's third solo album is also his greatest artistic statement. He wouldn't have a smash hit until the followup, 1972's bestselling Harvest, but Gold Rush remains Young's most focused, flawless collection of songs. This short elegy near the end of the record is one of Young's loveliest, and one of the most bittersweet breakup songs ever. "Lover, there will be another one / Who'll hover over you beneath the sun," Young croons, as his relationship dissipates like a flock of birds into the sky.
"Hold Back the Tears," American Stars 'n Bars (1977)
After a string of back-to-back-to-back classic albums, Young unceremoniously dropped this leftovers record. It's minor, but like so many of Young's more divisive records, it gets something of a bad rap, because even Young's scraps are better than many other artists' fully formed songs. "Hold Back the Tears" is probably the best on the record, and Young must agree, because it has rightfully become a live staple.
"Four Strong Winds," Comes a Time (1978)
Neil's last solo record of the '70s is one of his most consistent albums, and it doesn't get nearly enough love. "Four Strong Winds" is one of the rare great Young covers, in this case a take on '60s folk duo Ian and Sylvia's signature tune that's frequently listed as one of the best Canadian songs. I didn't know of it before hearing it close out Comes a Time, and it's one of my all-time favorite Young recordings, featuring beautiful backing vocals by Nicolette Larson (who would later cover Young's "Lotta Love," also on this album).
"Computer Age," Trans (1982)
OK, hear me out. This album, which found Young experimenting with synths and vocoders at the birth of new wave pop, has become something of a punchline. But I've never thought it was all that bad — a little dorky and ungainly, to be sure — and the fact that it was apparently Young's attempt at crafting a kind of therapeutic music for his son with cerebral palsy gives it a bittersweet edge. Give it another chance.
"One of These Days," Harvest Moon (1992)
Jumping ahead to the '90s, Harvest Moon feels like a loud-and-clear return to form after a decade-long scenic route. The first of many Neil albums about peering into the rearview mirror of life, it features some of his best late-period songs, including "Unknown Legend" and the beautiful title track. But I've always been predisposed to "One of These Days," in which Young reflects on his past and pledges to "write a long letter to all the good friends I've known."
"The Painter," Prairie Wind (2005)
While working on Prairie Wind, already an album invoking the memory of his recently deceased father, Young suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. This record is shot through with the weary wistfulness of someone who looked death in the face and came out on the other side, and this opening track is a lovely portrait of an artist's creative process. Young famously sang about an old man when he was in his 20s, but now that he's an old man himself, he's found a different kind of depth in his lyrics. ♦
Neil Young Solo • Sat, May 18 at 7:30 pm • $59.50-$150 • All ages • Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox • 1001 W. Sprague • foxtheaterspokane.org • 624-1200