The end of a decade really seems to bring out the fear and loathing in Neil Young. In 1969, he bid an embittered adieu to the shaky Sixties promise of Peace and Love with the irascible guitars and confessional despair of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Ten years later, on Rust Never Sleeps, he addressed the advancing arthritis and superstar complacency of Seventies rock with bristling verse and corrosive guitar violence, not to mention the deliberately provocative evocation of Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten in the same song.
Freedom is the sound of Neil Young, another decade on, looking back again in anger and dread. The songs are populated by the walking wounded and littered with dashed hopes and drug paraphernalia. The ties that bind — faith, love, charity — are coming undone, and betrayal is the norm. Then Young throws all this hurt at you, and it hits like a bucket of ice water in the face. You register shock at first, then indignation and finally a kind of vengeful exhilaration. As with Rust and Everybody Knows — and with other contentious classics like On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night and Re*ac*tor — Neil Young’s tour of Freedom‘s wasteland leaves you feeling both exhausted and invigorated, dismayed at what we’ve wrought yet determined to set it right.
It’s no coincidence that “Rockin’ in the Free World,” the album’s de facto theme song, bookends Freedom in separate live-acoustic and studio-electric versions. Like “My My, Hey Hey …” — its twin on Rust Never Sleeps — the song is a sing-along ball spinning on an axis of deadly irony, its superficial cheerleading charm soured by Young’s parade of victims: the homeless “sleepin’ in their shoes,” a young woman addict, her abandoned baby (“That’s one more kid/That will never go to school/Never get to fall in love/Never get to be cool”). And in the acoustic take, which opens the record, Young plays it like a body-count blues, his high, lonesome countertenor ringing with plaintive desperation.
The acoustic track, however, fades before the crucial last verse, which is restored in the climactic electric version. Over a thunder-fuzz attack that sounds like Rust to the tenth power, Young takes dead aim at cheap inauguration rhetoric (“We got a thousand points of light/For the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler, machine gun hand”), then whips around and takes a different pledge of allegiance. “Got a man of the people/Says keep hope alive,” he howls. “Got fuel to burn/Got roads to drive.”
The whole record seesaws like that, between pensive acoustic woe and embattled electric vigor. That’s partially because of the varying origins of these songs. The ballads “Ways of Love” (one of two duets with Linda Ronstadt on the LP) and the achingly beautiful “Too Far Gone” date back to the late Seventies. “Don’t Cry,” “Eldorado” and a frenzied cover of “On Broadway” come from a recent killer EP, Eldorado, culled from sessions last year in New York with a basic trio and the amps cranked up to 11. The EP, alas, was only released in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Freedom also includes material cut with Young’s blues ‘n’ brass gang, the Bluenotes.
The album’s checkered makeup heightens its thematic kick. While a lot of people will fall for Freedom because its schizo bounce between folkie ballads and high-decibel urgency bears a comforting resemblance to the gentler mood swings of his big Seventies successes — After the Goldrush and Harvest — Freedom‘s mixed menu of sound and sentiment has a lot more to do with the cyclical whirl of pain, pressure and pleasure in real life. Young put out an album two years ago called Life, but this is more like it.
It can be hard to see sunlight through the album’s gathering clouds. “Crime in the City” is a chilling litany of cynicism and resignation set to a skeletal, almost jazzy gallop and laced with Ben Keith’s icy steel guitar and the earthy mooing of the Bluenotes’ brass. In “Don’t Cry,” Young echoes a gentle but decisive kiss-off involving two lovers with alternating gestures of quiet guilt and vicious firestorm guitar. “No More” is a first-person update of “The Needle and the Damage Done,” the confessions of a former junkie who lapses into the same tired whisper: “No more, no more, no more.”
But if this album is about the illusion of freedom, it is also about Young’s refusal to accept that as the last word on the subject. He’s at least determined to go down dancing in “Wrecking Ball.” He’s willing to believe that “smog might turn to stars” in “Someday,” a wry, warm ballad with light R&B seasoning. The megametal cover of “On Broadway” is delightfully perverse, Young strangling his guitar with dramatic conviction. The high, Crazy Horse-like octane Young injects into the Drifters’ original street-corner hymn of blues and bravado boldly captures the competing strains of agony and ecstasy running all through Freedom. Still, at the end, he erupts into a nasty vocal freakout, yelling, “Give me that crack/Give me some of that crack!” and screaming like he’s just thrown himself onto the Times Square subway track. So much for fairytale endings.
What Young does to “On Broadway” is nothing compared to the garage-punk disemboweling of his own “Lotta Love” by Dinosaur Jr. or the way Sonic Youth transforms “Computer Age,” his ode to the digital life, into a primitivist guitar brawl. But that’s why The Bridge: A Tribute to Neil Young is such a gas. A compilation of eleven Young covers (fourteen on CD) by an all-star team of postpunk and college-radio acts, The Bridge celebrates not only Young’s enduring song-writing but the iconoclastic spirit and anarchic glee with which he continually challenges rock myth and defies rock convention. The best interpretations on the album overstep the songs’ original musical parameters without violating their emotional premises: the Pixies’ vibrant, loving “Winterlong”; Soul Asylum’s hooligan bash at “Barstool Blues”; Nick Cave’s version of “Helpless,” slowed to a funereal German-cabaret crawl.
The brainchild of Terry Tolkin, an ardent Young fan who conceived the project, commissioned the tracks and made a commitment to donate a portion of the proceeds to Young’s favorite charity (the Bridge School, for handicapped children, in northern California), The Bridge does have its small share of misfires, most notably Psychic TV’s overlong, overwrought “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” But the breadth of the album’s artist roster — which also includes Southern-gothic ??nteuse Victoria Williams, avant-rock guitarist Henry Kaiser and acid-dementia specialists Flaming Lips — is testament to the extraordinary scope of Young’s influence on rock in the Eighties. Freedom, in turn, is Young’s prayer for the Nineties, a harsh reminder that everything still comes with a price. Including rockin’ in a free world.