Prairie Wind

Neil Young has come a long way since the 1990s, when he reigned as rock's noisiest elder statesman. In 2005, he's as far removed from Ragged Glory as Ragged Glory was from Tonight's the Night, and his past ten years have been his quietest ever. Since Young turned fifty in late 1995, at the peak of his powers, he's made only a handful of albums, none of them big successes: the elegiac Crazy Horse slow-motion slopfest Broken Arrow, the folkie trifle Silver and Gold, the inept Are You Passionate?, the overwrought yet underwritten song cycle Greendale. For Prairie Wind, Young returns to familiar ground, the country-rock sound of Seventies discs such as Harvest and Comes a Time. It's his simplest music in a while, but it's effective. He spends the album saying goodbye to his friends, his family, the Canadian landscape and Elvis, in a reflective mood that suits the old-timey acoustic groove. Young cut Prairie Wind in Nashville, while commuting to New York to get treatment for a near-fatal brain aneurysm. His brush with mortality colors the new songs, as does the recent death of his father. Young sings about the comforts of family life — his kids in "Here for You," his parents in "Far From Home." The music goes down easy, with longtime cohort Ben Keith on steel guitar; what's hard to take are the background vocals, drowning out the melodies with stiff chorales. The lyrics are on the cozy side, but Young's acoustic guitar can snap and bite — especially in the excellent "Prairie Wind," his tribute to his father, which sounds like a countrified "Tonight's the Night." Touches like the harmonica solo in "Here for You" are so pretty, fans won't count how many times they've heard them before. The opening ballad, "The Painter," sums up the mood: "I have my friends eternally/We leave our tracks in the sound/Some of them are with me now/Some of them can't be found." Nothing earthshaking here — just Neil Young getting mellow while brooding over how little time leaves behind as it fades away.