Minutes before the arrival of Neil Young, a woman and a young boy each carried a fistful of burning sage and waved the smoking embers around a microphone outside the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. Young was there Friday night to preview his new environmentally conscious album, Earth, for a crowd of fans gathered in a small outdoor amphitheater.
Daylight was fading when Young finally stepped behind the mic, in a fringed leather coat and black fedora, and his words were brief. "As John Lennon would say: Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream," he said gently.
The 13-track album is a collection of environmental songs from across his career, from "After the Gold Rush" to "The Monsanto Years," recorded live last year with Promise of the Real. Young has added the sounds of insects and wild animals, giving the music an audience representative of all life on the planet. The nearly 90-minute LP unfolds as a seamless whole, with sounds of birds, primates, whale cries, dogs barking, bear growls and wind flowing from one song to the next. The music covers a range of Young periods and styles, with heaving pipe organ and harmonica on "Mother Earth" and raging guitars on "Seed Justice." Explosive album closer "Love and Only Love" sprawls out for more than 25 minutes, becoming more of an abstract soundscape than a song by the end, with undulating feedback and cymbal crashes complementing the swelling wildlife sounds.
A more fitting location could not have been picked for the debut of Earth. Towering over Young and the crowd was a giant glass cube displaying the 63-foot-long skeleton of a fin whale, and inside were dinosaur fossils and wildlife panoramas depicting grizzly bears and American buffalo. Rolling Stone spoke with Young at the event and learned five things about Earth.
1. For a hippie pacifist like Young, animals were the perfect collaborators. ...
"I've written a lot of songs about the state of the earth and the health of things from my point of view," Young told RS. "But I never really included all the living things so much as this. And their innocence and the way that you feel when you hear them – it makes you think about them. They're real, but they don't have this uptight vibe. They don't have all the hatred and everything. It's just not there. That's a subtle thing."
2. And they don't need any help in the studio.
"It was so fascinating making the record," Young says. "The sounds of the animals made you feel good. They are all in the right key. They don't clash with anything. They were perfectly in pitch. We never changed the pitch of any animal. We just left it the way it was and dropped it in. That was really encouraging."
3. Young plans to keep working with Promise of the Real, who are about to join him on a European tour.
"They have the flame; they have the knowledge; they have it in their bones and their soul," he says. "You don't have to teach them anything. They are in a class all by themselves."
4. Young makes no apology for writing new protest songs.
"When I write something now like the 'Monsanto' song – because you see so much – people question whether you have the right to do that," he says. "I've been doing this for a long time. I played them all on the tour, because I still believe in them."
5. Earth's opening song, "Mother Earth," was partly inspired by a belt buckle given to Young by a Native American in the early 1970s.
"It said 'Respect Mother Earth,' and it was handmade – a big silver plate, and it was obviously banged out by somebody and very soulful. I took the melody from an old hymn and made it a little bit different," Young explains, calling the song the most direct of any on the record. "It's the most in your face that this is what the record is about. The rest of it is scenes, but they add up to let you know something and feel. There's an incredible amount of love on this record, and you can feel that amongst everything. That's what life is all about."