In the last decade or two, you generally know what’s coming when you hit play on a new Neil Young record. You know there will be a few sweet lovestruck hymns that sound as if they’re being played in dusty Old West saloons or around campfires. You anticipate the songs that wax nostalgic about his childhood, and the ones that rage against the destructiveness and stupidity of mankind and the impact on the planet. You await those moments when he turns the volume knob up and makes his guitar sound like it’s sandblasting paint off an old shed
All those elements are in play in Barn, but the crucial difference is the presence of a reconstituted version of Crazy Horse, with recurring Young sideman Nils Lofgren replacing the retired Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. Young first reconvened his on-again, dismissed-again band for 2010’s underwhelming Colorado, but maybe they all just needed time to warm up. On Barn, cut in just a few days at a log-cabin structure in Colorado, the thunderous and ornery side of Young and the Horse revs up again, and sonically, at least, it’s akin to running into an old friend you haven’t seen face to face since the pre-pandemic days.
Take, for instance, “Heading West.” One of those look-backs at his youth and his parents’ breakup, it’s not nearly as detailed or fleshed out as previous narratives from “Don’t Be Denied” to “Born in Ontario.” But with his electric leading the way, the music is cranky and clankety, and drummer Ralph Molina can still hit his kit hard. “Canamerican,” where Young revels in his newfound ability to vote in this country (and for Joe Biden), and “Change Ain’t Never Gonna,” one of his apocalyptic rants, also summon up the old Horse rumble, down to those spooky, ethereal harmonies by Molina and bassist Billy Talbot.
Likewise, “Welcome Back” has a muted, slithering beauty, like an older, more somber “Cortez the Killer,” and “They Might Be Lost,” with another narrator awaiting the arrival of something foreboding, plays like a lyrical older companion to “Powderfinger.” Young’s softer, more maudlin side rolls out in “Song of the Seasons” and “Tumblin’ Through the Years,” the inevitable paeans to his wife Daryl Hannah and their new life together, and damn if Young’s voice, especially its upper register, hasn’t aged shockingly well. The rollicking “The Shape of You”–no, not a cover of the Ed Sheeran song–is awfully goofy, but that falsetto in the chorus is the sound of someone in love and unafraid to embarrass himself in public while expressing it.
At times, you miss the splatter of Poncho’s rhythm guitar, and you also wish Young had taken another shot at his lyrics, which can feel a little cringy and first draft (“Before your computer turns on you/And walking through the garden/You remember something you’ve been through/And mingle with the stars in the sky”). But even more so than on Colorado, Lofgren’s contributions and his musical interplay with Young—his jabbing guitar on “Change Ain’t Never Gonna,” piano parts here and there–recall what he also brought to Tonight’s the Night.
The deluxe edition of Barn includes an hour-plus documentary about the making of the album (also available as a separate Blu Ray). Directed by Hannah, credited as “dhlovelife,” it’s almost like a webcam: We see the four men wander in and out of the barn, tune up their instruments, turn Young’s request for cold beer into a vocal warmup exercise, play the songs, make small talk between takes, and celebrate Talbot’s 76th birthday with cake and candles. It’s Get Back without people walking out in frustration or mentioning Eric Clapton. You’re struck by how up there in their years they all look — Young himself turned 76 last month. But in light of how many of Young’s peers are retiring, no longer writing new songs or, alas, dying, seeing and hearing these weathered veterans summon up some of that old power is about as reassuring as heritage rock gets in 2021. And yes, it almost makes you say: More barn.