Neil Young has been involved in a lot of memorable rock music over the last seven years. He was one of the most interesting songwriters in Buffalo Springfield, and his own solo work with Crazy Horse still sounds fresh today. At his best, Young transformed his thin voice into a distinctive vehicle for a haunting, frail style, while his lead guitar bristled with a concise energy. His most satisfying work, especially the superb Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, captured an intimate presence that was both unassuming and engaging.
The title of Young’s newest record, Journey Through the Past, suggests a selection of tracks from the various phases of Young’s career. Unfortunately, the album instead pawns itself off as a film soundtrack, although whether the existence of any film could justify the existence of this record is questionable. To be sure, there are selections by the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young here. But, oddly, nothing with Crazy Horse is included, and Neil’s evocative “Sugar Mountain,” which has never been on an album, is also absent. If old concert tapes of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” are being dredged up, why not include the full-length “Bluebird”?
It’s sad but true that the best stuff on Journey is by the Buffalo Springfield. The album opens with a hilarious introduction of the group on television that segues into a truncated version of, “For What It’s Worth,” followed by “Mr. Soul,” apparently from the same television show; Neil’s driving vocal and guitar work on “Mr. Soul” possess a vitality almost completely absent from Journey‘s other cuts. From “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” on, the record quickly degenerates into a depressing combination of sloppy music and verbal filler for a two-record set that lasts barely over an hour. The first side ends with CSN&Y doing “Find the Cost of Freedom” and “Ohio” in concert. Both songs are available on Four Way Street in similarly unmemorable live versions; if Young wanted these songs re-released, he would have done better to use the superior single takes.
“Southern Man,” which was originally one of After the Gold Rush‘s highpoints, is also resurrected for the third time, in a ragged concert version which again seems to feature CSN&Y singing off tune (the album’s fancy packaging somehow manages to omit a listing of who performs what on which tracks). It is tediously crammed together on side two with a new take of “Alabama,” an unblushing rehash of “Southern Man” first issued on Harvest; Journey‘s new version is only distinguished by the pointless addition of some studio small talk. Neil’s Harvest band, the Stray Gators, is a stone bore on the two other tracks culled from the Harvest sessions. If the out-take of “Are You Ready for the Country” is merely annoying, Journey‘s version of “Words” is downright offensive. Occupying all of side three, it winds on for 15 tortuous minutes, with nary an interesting thematic development in sight; Young’s hapless attempts at a guitar solo are so inept as to be embarrassing. All three of the Harvest songs actually sounded better in their original incarnations.
The one new song on Journey, “Soldier,” is performed by Neil alone on the piano. It’s a lousy recording, and the song is hardly up to Young’s normal standards; perhaps it serves some function in the film. Apart from “Soldier,” the fourth side is given over to sheer dreck: a bit of Handel’s Messiah, the theme from King of Kings (?), and, just as strange, Brian Wilson’s moody instrumental “Let’s Go Away for Awhile,” pulled off the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. There’s really little excuse for issuing these tracks on a Neil Young album—but then, there’s not much more excuse for issuing inferior new versions of old Neil Young material.
In fact, some six minutes of Buffalo Springfield songs and the approximately three minutes of “Soldier” are all that might conceivably edify the purchaser of Journey Through the Past. It is outrageous that this album was ever released. It is frankly exploitive of a faithful audience that deserves better from one of its favored performers. There have been many moments in his career when Young has produced some fine rock. Journey Through the Past contains virtually none of those moments. It is the nadir of Neil Young’s recording activity.