At his extraordinary June 22 concert at Detroit's DTE Energy Music Theatre, Neil Young spent the first hour-and-a-half performing his new concept album in its entirety instead of trotting out his old hits. In addition, a couple of dozen enthusiastic cast members acted out the narrative of Young's self-described musical novel amid homey sets while lip-synching to the songs that Young himself was singing.
The staging and choreography were more along the lines of a high school drama class than anything done by Twyla Tharp or Jerome Robbins, but the presentation could not have been more charming, heartfelt and true to Young's unique vision, which prefers Leave It to Beaver to anything high-tech.
Now we can hear his concept on disc. Greendale is a fictional California small town that is home to the Green family, and Young intertwines stories of Grandpa Green pining for the past, his son Earl trying to sell his paintings, Earl's daughter's transformation into an ecological crusader and cousin Jed's murder of a police officer.
Young uses these characters as templates on which to hang his philosophies about the joys and heartbreak of family life, personal freedom and responsibility, the evils of mass media and the plundering of the environment.
The recording is particularly sparse and under-produced, even by Young's standards, with Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampredo sitting out the recording entirely (although he was at the DTE show playing quiet keyboards). Bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina provide meat-and-potatoes backup to Young, who lets go many of his trademark epic-length guitar solos to focus on the lengthy narratives in his songs.
Sung and played by lesser souls, lyrics with such obvious messages as "Save the planet for another day," "Someday you'll find everything you're looking for" and "A little love and affection will make the world a better place with or without you" could be unbearably trite. Mix in Young's Mr. Soul alchemy, however, and the familiar, everyday pleasures and trials of life turn into high art.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Greendale (Reprise) ****