- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

Neil Young

“Greendale”

Reprise

At 57, Neil Young really has no business making a concept album. But leave it to that flannel-clad Canadian curmudgeon, who has always marched to his own cacophony, to make concept rock seem as close to unpretentious as such a project could be.

It helps that “Greendale,” released this past Tuesday, reads like a down-home Mayberry opera.

The fictional town of Greendale, Calif., is inhabited by characters named Jed, Earl and Edith; they read newspapers on the front porch every morning; they drive old El Dorados.

Oh, yeah, they have dope traffic, gambling problems and cop killers, too.

It wouldn’t be Neil Young without the needle and the damage done.

If you don’t think Mr. Young is serious about the saga of Greendale, think again. He’s touring with a troupe of live players who act out each song’s vignette onstage with the band.

The same actors also star in a soon-to-be-released DVD version of “Greendale.” (A bonus DVD with Mr. Young performing the album live at Vicar Street, a venue in Dublin, Ireland, accompanies the CD.)

Such big-sky ambition probably would seem like overkill coming from anyone besides Mr. Young. Bob Dylan, for instance, is making a foray into movies again, and the buzz surrounding “Masked & Anonymous,” in which an even more enigmatic than usual Mr. Dylan stars, hasn’t been altogether positive.

What makes “Greendale” easy to swallow — and, I suspect, easy to forget — is the sheer offhandedness of it. The 10 songs seem tossed off (according to the cryptic liner notes, Mr. Young wrote while driving to the studio), and the recordings themselves are casual and frill-free.

Except for the odd harmonica or organ line, “Greendale” consists of nothing more than Mr. Young on harsh electric guitar and his Crazy Horse rhythm section — drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot.

A salad of rockabilly, blues and folk, “Greendale” can be a plodding listen, but there are occasional breezes of catchy guitar licks and pleasing hooks.

“Bandit,” for my money the standout track of the album, is one of the best songs Mr. Young has written in years.

It’s a sleepy, hypnotic acoustic ballad with a touch of funk in its backbeat. Mr. Young whispers a desperate lyric while the buzz of his guitar, in a loosely strung dropped tuning, almost becomes a separate instrument in itself.

That the track doesn’t clearly fit into the album’s schema may or may not say something about the project’s success. Its length, a little more than three minutes, is an act of mercy, given the running time of the rest of the story-songs in “Greendale.”

The tape rolled far too long for most of the 10 tracks — only two clock in at less than five minutes, and a few huff and puff their way across the 10-minute mark — but “Greendale” clearly isn’t intended for passive listening or mood music.

Mr. Young wants listeners to engage his characters as though they are full-bodied fictional creations.

Earl and Edith Green are two aging hippies whiling away retirement on the Double E Rancho outside Greendale. Their daughter, Sun Green, is a crunchy-granola girl who aspires to a career in performance art. Her cousin, Jed Green, is a drug dealer.

Lucifer himself roams the sleepy Northern California hamlet, according to “Devil’s Sidewalk.”

In “Leave the Driving,” Jed, tooling around in a car with broken taillights, is pulled over by a cop. Panicked, he shoots Officer Carmichael, an event that sparks a media frenzy in Greendale.

When reporters descend on the Double E, a stressed-out Earl (“fightin’ for freedom of silence”) croaks of a heart attack in “Grandpa’s Interview.”

Indignant over her father’s death and — no kidding here — the FBI’s murder of her cat, Sun becomes an eco-activist and meets a guy named Earth Brown, an Alaska denizen who offers her a life as a “goddess in the planet wars.”

Literary fiction “Greendale” ain’t. The characters have dumb, unimaginative names, and the plot is a poor excuse for Mr. Young’s anti-media and environmentalist polemics.

“Be the Rain,” which closes the album, is quite possibly the worst-ever argument against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

With a company of gospel singers hooting over Mr. Young’s megaphone chanting, a jarring departure from the album’s low-key tone, “Rain” is the only song on “Greendale” in which the protest becomes too strident.

Topical sparring is nothing new for Mr. Young, but “Greendale” is the first time the singer-songwriter has given politics such a bright spotlight.

Thankfully, most of these songs could stand on their own merits and probably didn’t need to be strung together by a meta-narrative or a partisan grudge.

Mr. Young has said in recent interviews that he was obeying his muse while writing “Greendale” and that he never set out to make a concept album.

In a way, “Greendale” is rescued by that inspirational haphazardness: It comes this close to simply being a decent, late-period Neil Young album.

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