- The Washington Times - Monday, September 26, 2005

Last year’s concept album “Greendale,” while no masterpiece, marked the end of more than a decade of water-treading for Neil Young. Despite its haphazardly noisy musical arrangements, it had groove, energy and a focused anger.

Since then, Mr. Young has suffered a near-fatal brain aneurysm and lost a parent (his father, Canadian journalist Scott Young).

It’s no wonder he’s so homesick on “Prairie Wind,” a welcome, if patchy, return to the country-rock template that Mr. Young perfected on landmark ‘70s LPs such as “Harvest” and “Comes a Time.” “Prairie Wind” is filled with reminiscences of hometown, extended family and Elvis Presley; it closes with a near-sacred reflection on mortality and faith, “When God Made Me,” which Mr. Young debuted at the Canadian portion of last summer’s Live 8 concerts.

With a band that includes keyboardist Spooner Oldham and pedal-steel guitarist Ben Keith, plus harmony vocals from Emmylou Harris, “Prairie Wind” has all the fixings of a quiet sensation. Instead, and alas, it’s a drowsy muddle.

For every gem, such as the tough acoustic blues of the title track and the beautifully evocative “Here for You,” there are lazy recycle jobs like “This Old Guitar,” an inferior copy of the title track to 1992’s “Harvest Moon.” Elsewhere, backup singers and string sections betray the album’s charming plainness.

On songs such as the topical “No Wonder” (it picks up on the enviro-polemical themes of “Greendale”), Mr. Young chases after melodies rather than singing them with conviction. Lyrics seem tossed off, as on “It’s a Dream,” where he piles up hazy impressions with little thought to whether the song finally adds up to its purported meaning of fading memory. Mr. Young’s Elvis tribute, “He Was the King,” toddles on for six-plus minutes when it could have packed the same punch at half that length.

Still, there are enough moments here to affirm Mr. Young’s own self-assessment on “This Old Guitar”: “It’s brought a tear and a smile… It never went out of style.”

Though suffused with nostalgia, “Prairie Wind” is as whimsical as it is wistful. The bubbly R&B; number “Far From Home,” punctuated by a Memphis horn section and Mr. Young’s happy-go-lucky harmonica, finds the singer contentedly instructing someone to “bury me out on the prairie/where the buffalo used to roam/You won’t have to shed a tear for me/’cause then I won’t be far from home.”

The gentle “Falling Off the Face of the Earth” lingers with a simple message: “It’s such a precious thing/the time we share together/I must apologize/for all the troubled times.”

While it’s by no means a wasted effort, “Prairie Wind” along with “Greendale” and the lot of Mr. Young’s uneven late-‘90s output, may quickly be forgotten in the forthcoming rush of archival releases from the singer’s longtime label Reprise Records.

If Mr. Young’s last great album, 1989’s “Freedom” (a brilliant pastiche of old, unreleased songs) was any indication, many treasures await us.

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