After a series of musical one-night stands, Neil Young is finally getting serious again. His previous three albums were just dalliances — in electronic (Trans), rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’) and country (Old Ways) music — none of which were terribly meaningful or deeply felt. This time, however, Young has committed himself to a sound that’s truly new. He’s working with electronics again, but while Trans used conventional computer dance beats surrounded by thick, slick synth effects, Landing on Water keeps its electronics in the garage. Instead of using technology to go high-tech, Young creates a rinky-tink synth sound, which is set off by surprisingly sparse, crisp arrangements.
On this record, Young has axed Trans‘s vocoder, which made him sound like a singing microwave. There are also more of his raw, bleeding guitar leads. But what’s really jarring is the sound of Steve Jordan’s drums. They’re mixed way up high to exhilarating effect. In “I Got a Problem,” the drums are compellingly brash, and in “People on the Street,” it sounds as if Jordan could kick through the speakers at any moment.
Young lightens things up with the pop touches in “Violent Side” and “Hard Luck Stories.” To insure his patented irony, the happiest pop melodies are married to some of the album’s direst lyrics. Young may kick off the LP on an optimistic note, casting off the “Weight of the World,” but the rest hits like a hurricane. Of course, Young writes bitter songs best, but while it’s nice to hear him confronting life again after the relative complacency of his last two LPs, his spare lyrics are not the album’s forte. None has the flaky invention of his finest, and the most interesting seem to reduce the whole Sixties movement to a “Hippie Dream.”
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But what Young’s lyrics lack in character, the music makes up for in freshness. True, Landing on Water doesn’t have the sweep of Rust Never Sleeps or Tonight’s the Night, but it’s definitely his most consistent LP of the Eighties. More important, Young has found a way to give his sound a healthy new shot of neurosis.