The album tracks, remixes and live recordings on Lucky Thirteen come from Neil Young’s trying affiliation through the Eighties with Geffen Records, a period that found him more slagged than celebrated. In fact, that passage only clarified Young’s passionate, career-long commitment to emotion over style; it offered the genre experiments of someone who countered early-Seventies Eagles-style pop, for example, with music that sounds like Sonic Youth playing country rock. Lucky Thirteen resequences and rethinks the imperfect but important Eighties work of an artist who recently contended that “deep inside” his acoustic pleasantries, his distorted raveups, his troubled techno, his symphonic flights, lies “the same stuff.” It’s an extraordinary view for a Sixties-based rock musician to take — a refusal to moralize about genre — and on this compilation, Young begins to set his artistic record straight.
Compiled by Young himself, Lucky Thirteen is more concerned with demonstrating the value of eclecticism than showing off Young’s finest Geffen copyrights; many memorable songs don’t appear. Instead, Young tries to show how the emotional impulses behind his songwriting, performing and recording methods remain constant as his styles vary. Beginning with a spectacular remix, firm and echoing, of “Sample and Hold” (Trans, 1982), followed by the blend of romantic yearning and technological severity in “Transformer Man,” from the same album, Young makes the bold transition into the analog guitar-and-harmonica vibe of the previously unreleased “Depression Blues.” In context, the dramatic effect of a narrative shot through with worries and hope that mourns the loss of “magic” in today’s world is impossible to overstate. These songs alone make Young’s point extremely well: that when you’re not married to one particular style, your music can then be free to develop itself totally, without fear of too much attention to what Young calls “surface.”
On the rest of Lucky Thirteen, Young further wins his case not with theory but with music: In a live, gnarly, previously unreleased version of “Don’t Take Your Love Away From Me,” he stretches out words in a George Jones kind of way. On “Hippie Dream” and “Pressure” (Landing on Water, 1986) he sings country aches into songs governed by involved, gritty electric guitar. And in a patch of his famous indigestibility, he tells the tale of “Mideast Vacation” (Life, 1987), rolling out that metal-sired “Like a Hurricane” float that could be, in the end, Young’s greatest musical contribution.
A longer retrospective called Neil Young Archives will follow Lucky Thirteen. Meantime, there is this extraordinary album, which lays out the crucial reasons why Neil Young perseveres and triumphs.