“Well, Mr. Weird is at it again” was one of the first reactions I heard to the synthesized sounds and Vocoderized vocals that typify a lot of the material on Neil Young’s new album. Trans. With Young, one learns to expect the unexpected, but this record is as drastic a break from career form as David Bowie’s kiss-off to his Thin White Duke persona with Low. And twice as surprising, too, because Young, despite his penchant for shifting gears from record to record, has always sunk his roots deep into the good earth, the fertile loam, of the American singer songwriter tradition. So, if Neil Young feels compelled to scramble his lyrics in computerized Morse code, running his voice through Vocoders and octave dividers, what are we to make of this brave new world that’s overtaking us, turning our sturdiest songsmiths into computer clones? Has the ever-suggestible Young, in his zeal to escape the sad fate of those touring Tutankhamens (and former bandmates) Crosby, Stills and Nash, taken it too far this time?
Well, not exactly. Seems that Young was catching up with a lot of new releases around the time of reactor, and one of them, Kraftwerk’s Computer World, particularly grabbed his fancy. Indeed, a lot of Trans documents his impressions of the computer world that Kraftwerk celebrated so icily and nimbly on that 1981 LP. But at some later point, Young also went to Hawaii with his band of regulars — the Crazy Horse alumni. Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, et al. — and recorded a batch of new tunes written in a more traditional vein. Material from both sessions wound up on Trans, and the intentional clash of styles — there is always method in Young’s madness — is what makes this record such an intriguing puzzle. Trans commences with a false start: a perfectly innocuous love song entitled “Little Thing Called Love.” The music is bouncy and bright, and the payoff is that pretty major-seventh chord stuck at the end of the chorus, which itself is a series of sweet nothings delivered in a wry deadpan: “Only love puts a tear in your eye/Only love makes you hypnotized …” And so on. It’s the sort of thing you could hum in your sleep, and maybe that’s the point.
But no sooner does this wisp of pleasantry fade than out issues the programmed thud-thud of a computer drum, Joined by an ethereal wash of synthesizer, heralding the arrival of the androids. Young sings in an electronically altered voice on the four songs that round out this side, and on side two’s “Sample and Hold.” It would seem to be his mission here to animate the binary world. Such compositions as “Computer Age” and “Transformer Man” sound like anthems to a microchip utopia of the future. And Young’s computer cadets, which serenade us in a precious little squeak of a voice, are singularly unthreatening. It’s as if by abstracting human intelligence from the emotional biases that often misdirect it, we can attain a truer ideal of perfection — electronically.
As conversant as Young has become with his new toys and as fully as he’s conceptualized his thoughts about them. It’s a long way from the wide-open spaces of his California ranch to the high-tech environs of. sav. Kraftwerk’s West Germany. All of which means that however much Trans is given over to a certain stylistic mimicry — Kraftwerk writes “Computer World” and “Computer Love.” Young writes “Computer Age” and “Computer Cowboy” — it’s counterpointed by at least three songs in which Young plays it pretty straight. “Like an Inca.” in fact, is one of the least ironic and unabashedly visionary songs he’s ever written, right up there with such masterpieces as “Last Trip to Tulsa.” “The Old Homestead” and “Like a Hurricane.”
This incongruity between old and new modes on Trans is striking — sort of like seeing a satellite dish sitting outside a log cabin. Isolate the three unencoded, untampered-with songs here — “Little Thing Called Love,” “Hold On to Your Love” and “Like an Inca” — and you’ll get an idea of the album that might have been: buoyant, sparkling, very singer/songwriterly, much like his 1969 solo debut, Neil Young. (One more “love” song, “If You Got Love,” was pulled off the LP at the last moment by Young — too late, even, to be struck from the song listings on the jacket.) The five computer tunes, on the other hand, represent a wholly different tangent. Weave the two together and bridge them with a new version of “Mr. Soul” (dusted off from Young’s Buffalo Springfield days) that bows both to the deathless past and the digital present, and you have an album of colliding realities that somehow mirrors our modern age. It’s the world in transition (hence the title?), a unique moment in human history in which old technologies are yielding to new ones — and where human values struggle to maintain an equilibrium with the accelerated change.
Young seems nonplussed by it all; he has no trouble accommodating the two worlds on his slab of vinyl (and, what’s more, is probably amused to think of the discomfiture his new music will bring the buckskin folkies who like him for Harvest). In truth, once you get past its radical sonic veneer, Trans turns out to be a pretty whimsical treatise on the theme of man-meets-machine, with Young wisecracking his way through the high-tech numbers — note the wild coyotes who yowl on the computer cowboy’s range, and the mate-hunting automaton who sings. “I need a unit to sample and hold/But not the angry one, a new design, new design” — and tossing off the treacle of the straight love songs with casual disinterest. Along the way, he gets off some good guitar licks — the descending riff in “Computer Cowboy” is a killer — and he deserves a dance-club hit with “We Are in Control,” a roll call of computer insurgency that out-Krafts the krauts.
But as Young himself has sung. sooner or later it all gets real, and he gets down to business on Trans’ final track. “Like an Inca.” The song is a quixotic Journey with the horsemen of the apocalypse across a landscape hung heavy with an aura of impending disaster. It’s built upon a slight. Jazzy riff played on a phalanx of guitars, with drums and congas adding rhythmic spice; its breezy, Latin feel recalls early Santana. But the tune’s airiness is contrasted by a doomy, two-note synthesizer motif, and by Young’s dark prophecies: “Said the condor to the preying mantis. We’re gonna lose this place/Just like we lost Atlantis.” In a voice that cracks with outrage, Young raises the specter of nuclear holocaust (“Who put the bomb on the sacred altar?”), but the die has been cast, and when the gypsy reads his fortune, it comes up empty.
Throughout this album, as well as on Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust and reactor, Young has been stumping on behalf of the musical New Wave and the technological Next Wave. In “Like an Inca,” however, he sounds like he wishes he were living in any time or place but the present, and the glories of ancient civilizations fill his imagination with longing: “I wish I was an Aztec Or a runner in Peru/I would build such beautiful buildings. To house the chosen few.” As it is, though, when the end of this odyssey is at hand, he finds an oddly peaceful sense of solace and resolution:
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I feel sad, but I feel happy
‘Cause I’m coming back to home
There’s a bridge across the river
That I have to cross alone
Like a skipping rolling stone.
All of which says to me that despite his tinkering around with the hardware of the computer age. Neil Young is really still a sweephand clock in a digital world, a solitary quester after truth. And he continues to tick for all things enduring: love, humanity, dignity, strength. The good fight.