I almost would have missed the new album by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, even though I previously wrote about Milky Way, the lead single that came out in late August. Colorado was released on October 25 while I was in Germany for a short trip. Young’s first new album with Crazy Horse since Psychedelic Pill from October 2012 in many ways sounds like a typical Neil album with the band: rugged and spontaneous. While it appeals to me and I suspect others digging Neil Young, I’m not sure it will gain him new fans. There is no obvious hit. But with Young being strong-willed and fiercely independent, I also suspect he doesn’t care.
One significant difference compared to previous Crazy Horse albums is the absence of Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. The band’s guitarist since 1975, who gave Crazy Horse a rawer, more edgy sound and became a frequent collaborator of Young, confirmed his retirement to Uncut earlier this year, as reported by Rolling Stone. Sampedro has been replaced by Nils Lofgren. Lofgren isn’t exactly a stranger. He played together with Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, Crazy Horse’ bassist and drummer, respectively, on Young’s 1975 studio album Tonight’s The Night. He was also part of Crazy Horse’s eponymous debut album from February 1971, which the band recorded without Young.
Lofgren doesn’t appear to take things for granted. “It’s been a beautiful opportunity to play with dear friends that are still alive and well,” he told Rolling Stone. “Look, I hope there’s more, but I’ll take it a gig at a time right now.” Of course, Lofgren is also a member of the E Street Band, and Bruce Springsteen has confirmed plans for a new album with the band and a 2020 tour, as reported by NME. Let’s get to some music from Colorado, which by the way was recorded over an 11-day span this April at a studio in the Rocky Mountains at close to 9,000 feet – I suspect another difference to previous Crazy Horse albums!
Here’s the opener Think Of Me, which to me sounds more like a Neil Young solo tune. Like all tracks on the record, the song was written by him. The tune also sets up the album’s overall theme: Climate change and man-made environmental degradation. In addition to Young on guitar, harmonica and lead vocals, Talbot on bass and Molina on drums, the track features Lofgren on piano. Perhaps you thought Lofgren “only” is a guitarist. Nope, he’s a multi-instrumentalist who apart from guitar and piano/keyboards also plays accordion, pedal steel guitar and banjo. Not to imply anything negative here, but he certainly is no Sampedro!
So where’s some of that rugged sound I mentioned above? Ask and you shall receive. Here’s Olden Days. During an interview with Rolling Stone, Lofgren noted the initial plan had been for him to play acoustic guitar and accordion on the tune, but right before the band was supposed to record the track, Young suggested a heavier electric sound. “Right away, the song took on a more muscular, Crazy Horse vibe and it wasn’t forced,” Lofgren said. “That set the tempo for the rest of what we did.”
Green Is Blue is another gentle sounding tune, though Young’s message is everything but gentle: …We heard the warning calls, ignored them/We saw the weather change, we saw the fires and floods/We saw the people rise, divided/We fought each other while we lost our coveted prize…The song also features Lofgren on yet another instrument: vibraphone.
On Shut It Down, the band resumes a more muscular electric sound and Young is back with more dire warnings about environmental deterioration driven by human ignorance: …Have to shut the whole system down/All around the planet/There’s a blindness that just can’t see/Have to shut the whole system down/They’re all wearing climate change/As cool as they can be…
The last tune I’d like to call out, I Do, is on the quieter side again. And there are more lyrics about environmental change. But two aspects regarding the instrumentation are new and intriguing: Lofgren on pump organ and Young on glass harmonica.
Asked by NPR about his philosophy that recording music isn’t about reaching perfection, Young pointed out, “We’re thinking about making it sound real, like you can feel that this means something to the people playing it. We’re not trying to impress anybody.” He also distinguished between rawness and imperfection and what he called a sound quality that’s as pure as possible. “They’re two totally different things. The raw thing that we create is the soul of music and the stories and the feelings of being human. The technical thing that happens is trying to capture that. If you try to capture that and you use tools that are less precise, then you get less of it. You know the feeling that you have when you hear something that’s really great and it touches your soul? The chances of it really touching your soul are much better if you hear all of it.”
Young has been pretty busy in recent years. Colorado is his fourth album since Peace Trail from December 2017. Apart from archiving all of his recordings on his website neilyoungarchives.com, he recently released Mountaintop, a film about the making of Colorado. It played in select theatres across the country on October 22. Here’s the trailer. Young is also working on 13 other films – gee! Moreover, on September 10, he published To Feel The Music, a book about his quest to bring high quality audio back to music lovers via his Pono music player.
Had it not been for the unexpected death of Elliot Roberts, who had been Young’s manager since 1967(!) and passed away on June 21 this year, Young probably would have announced a tour to support the new album. But as Lofgren told Rolling Stone, Young needs to adjust to a world without Elliot, so he has no present plans to hit the road with Crazy Horse. Colorado, which was produced by John Hanlon and Young, is dedicated to Roberts.
Sources: Wikipedia; Genius; Rolling Stone; YouTube