"When I was a younger man," sings Neil Young on "Old Ways," his 18th and latest solo album, "Got lucky with a rock and roll band/Struck gold in Hollywood/All the time I knew I would/Get back to the country."
No shit, Neil.
It's been 13 years since Neil Young last made the same kind of record twice. His creative streak continues with "Old Ways," a twangy Nashville album that follows on the heels of 1983's "Everybody's Rockin," an upbeat if self-conscious pseudo-fifties revival; 1982's "Trans," the sonic and artistic equivalent of being flushed down a mainframe computer; and "Re-Ac-Tor" (1981), a gritty, post-punk effort. No, Young is certainly not doing what he did last year, or the year before, or even the year before that.
"Old Ways," though, shows the 39-year-old Young at his most self-assured since 1979's "Live Rust," arguably the finest live record in rock history. As the leitmotif cut "Get Back to the Country" (not the same as "Are You Ready for . . .") suggests, Young, the co-sponsor of last Sunday's 14-hour FarmAid extravaganza, has found what he says he wants to do with the rest of his life. And he's found the right people to do it with: those old outlaws, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, are on hand for several duets.
As with any country and western product, "Old Ways" is a few nuggets wrapped in a heap of simple-minded fluff. But Young makes no apologies. Rather, as in "Once an Angel," an insipid 6-8 love ode, and "Bound for Glory," a sweet if inconclusive ballad about a trucker committing adultery in the Canadian boondocks, the perennially angst-ridden Young has found a new peace.
Side One opens with "Wayward Wind," an over-produced, weak composition that gets further dragged down by a consummately annoying string section and co-vocalist Denise Draper, a third-rate version of Dolly who has trouble breathing.
From there comes "Get Back to the Country," a foot-stomping ripsnorter from the first snaps of Rufus Thibodeaux's Cajun fiddle to the jangling bounce of Terry McMillan's Jew's harp. Both musically and metaphorically, "Get-Back to the Country" provides the strength to carry the album, both signalling Young's new direction and showing the best example of it.
"Are There Any More Real Cowboys," the duet with Nelson, marks the biggest wasted opportunity since the parents of the sexpot next door went on vacation and you caught the flu. After a klunky key change halfway through, Neil and Willie join in alleged unison, and their quavery, out-of-pitch voices--so endearing separately--make as attractive a combination as fingernail and blackboard.
"Once an Angel," addressed to Young's wife of six years, Pegi, leads into "Misfits"--a bombastic, flatulent tale which should have joined the outtakes. Pretentious images of astronauts watching Muhammad Ali reruns and "see-through hookers" expiring of sneezing fits--images which succeeded so well within the folksy atmosphere of "Rust Never Sleeps"--here are unfortunately paired with an Indian Warpath beat and Doana Cooper's coyote howls.
"California Sunset," a snatch of western swing recorded live at the Austin City Limits honky tonk, kicks off side two. After "Get Back to the Country," it's the album's strongest song. Next up, the title cut, is a classic Waylon-style "Gonna quit this drugs and drinkin" confessional. It's one of Young's funniest pieces since "Yonder Stands the Sinner."
"My Boy" is a sweet, highly personal letter from Young to his son. It just barely survives disembowelment at the hands of a heavy, overmixed electric guitar solo before the final verse. "Why're you growing up so fast, my boy?" the banjo-plucking Young asks, an appropriate enough question in an age when Ringo Starr is enjoying his new status as a grandfather. The album's final two cuts, "Bound for Glory" and the wailer "Where Is the Highway Tonight?" are classic Nashville shlock.
"Old Ways" sounds very much like a transitional album, a disc Young felt he had to make to establish his new down-home credentials. Only in an historical sense, then, like 1969's painfuly feeble and ruthlessly over-dubbed "Neil Young," is "Old Ways" a vital part of the Young canon.
While generally weak, it is an encouraging album. Young's most brilliant, visceral work has always followed such mediocre transitional albums: "Everybody knows This is Nowhere" (1969) and classic "After the Goldrush" (1970) followed the disappointing album, "Neil Young"; the dark, powerful "On the Beach" (1974) and "Tonight's the Night" (1975) followed the drunk and disorderly "Time Fades Away" (1973). Moreover, Young's finest work has always had a country tinge: witness "Harvest" (1972) and "Comes a Time" (1978).
In short, Young has shown that he can flourish in Nashville, and declared on "Old Ways" that that's where he wants to stay. On its own, "Old Ways" is an adequate country album, more than sufficient for a genre not noted for its iconoclasm. But by the standards of Young's repertoire it's a weak album. Fortunately, the course of his career suggests that he'll do better--much better--next time.