Neil Young and Warren Zevon share a deeper kinship than might be immediately obvious. Although both men are approaching 50, they remain defiant originals, mainstream exiles, amiable cynics. After being adrift (Young) or absent (Zevon) for much of the ’80s, both are now basking in midlife renaissances. But if you’re going to peddle new versions of songs your fans already own, you should try to transcend the increasingly empty “unplugged” trend.
Even within the spare context of his appearance on Unplugged, Young flashes both sides of his musical personality: the earnest folkie and the edgy heretic. Young’s set is neatly divided into halves: The first seven tunes are strictly solo, tapping darker material like his Buffalo Springfield touchstone “Mr. Soul” and the plaintive “Stringman,” a previously unreleased gem. For the last seven songs he’s backed by the current incarnation of the Stray Gators (bolstered by Nils Lofgren) and leans on softer folk, ranging from “Helpless” to three repeats from Harvest Moon. A beguiling acoustic reworking of “Transformer Man” and a pipe-organ take on “Like a Hurricane” are both revelations. Yet overall, it feels like Young’s coasting: The music has the relaxed aura of a friendly fireside folk sing that could use a shot of ragged glory.
Zevon’s set, culled from his 1992 solo tour, sports a better sense of humor and a stronger sense of irony but still reeks of recycling. Alternating between keyboards and crisp 12-string guitar, Zevon delivers acoustic renderings of everything from smartass anthems like “Lawyers, Guns and Money” to the unsettling “Boom Boom Mancini.” Although most of the fresh instrumental flourishes click, 13 minutes of “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is simply exhausting. Of three new songs, only “The Indifference of Heaven” matches his most compelling work. Although Learning to Flinch is easily Zevon’s sharpest since his Sentimental Hygiene (1987), its finest moments are drawn from his oldest material.
While Young’s Unplugged is essentially another episode of “Neil, the Enigmatic Folkie,” Zevon’s collection functions more purely as a career overview. Both albums make fine mementos for fans, but they’re the sonic equivalent of souvenir T-shirts: perfectly comfortable, destined to fade.