Review: Neil Young – Return to Greendale

Neil Young’s Performance Archives series has treated fans to such wonders as the legendary 1971 Massey Hall performance; this full concert of Young’s polarizing 2003 album Greendale, the 16th entry in the series, is something from the leftfield. This concept album about a family called the Greens is one of Young’s most bizarre efforts, and Return to Greendale catches an early performance.

Revisiting this album in live form has been a strange one. Previously I enjoyed some tunes and others not so much, not a lot has changed on that front. Young’s legendary backing band Crazy Horse were called in again, minus rhythm guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro, with Young’s guitar and vocals taking centre stage. While being technically an essentially basic electric guitar player, Young twists it creating a style all his own, much mimicked and never equalled. Here he alternates blues sludge like ‘Double E’ and considered guitar solos on songs such as ‘Carmichael’ with his usual raw, ragged playing. Compared with the recorded album, here Young blasts on his harp with more intensity and lengthens the guitar solos – I welcome this.

The songs’ lyrical content and the concept album style are aspects of Greendale that have led to extensive discussions among fans and critics over the years. To me, some of it works and some of it doesn’t. Young’s post 90s output has been criticized for poor lyrics, and some of the content here makes me cringe. It’s not just the lyrics, their delivery is often laboured and jarring. Opener’ Falling From Above’ contains the lyric ‘sing a song for depressed angels, falling from above’. It’s not great on paper, and it sounds worse on record.

Where the original record and the live versions soar is when we are reminded of Young’s duality; from tender beauty to ragged glory in the blink of an eye. Centrepiece ‘Bandit’, which is seemingly unconnected to the Greens narrative, has always been one of my favourites for its simplicity and emotional honesty. It’s the album’s only solo acoustic performance and I wasn’t hugely convinced at first; it sounded a bit too ragged. But as the middle eight hit in with the beautiful refrain ‘someday you’ll find everything you’re looking for’ I was reminded of how Young can speak straight to the human heart, with no hint of pretension or show.

Album closer ‘Be the Rain’ is an urgent, euphoric rallying call that reveals the true themes of the album, namely the plight of the environment and harmony with nature. With an urgency and intensity bettering the original and a heartfelt delivery, the song’s message is even more important today. I listened to the audio of this performance. I’ve not seen it but there will be a release of the filmed show on Blu Ray, so you can experience the Green families story as performed by actors onstage miming along to the songs. It’s sure to be surreal and enjoyable.

For many super-fans purchasing this one will be a must, and Young has many of them. For me the improved versions of the songs I already enjoyed make it a better listen than the original, and if you have love for Greendale it’s worth seeking out. If you’ve never heard it, and have love for Young, it’s time to dive in.

Return to Greendale was released 6th of November on Reprise Records.

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