Album Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Barn

[The Other Shoe; 2021]

A little while ago, some of our writers got together at the obligatory BPM office watercooler and brought up the semantics of the age old term of ‘alternative’ in music discussion. For the uninitiated: ‘alternative’ was a term coined during the Gen X era to describe a specific rock sound that was more emotionally, politically and artistically minded than the then current radio rock. It also often suggested independent distribution and a significant leaning towards counter-cultural values. One particular discussion point, then, was that the Millennial generation segued from ‘alternative’ directly into ‘indie’, a similar term, seemingly more suited for pop and wave adjacent sounds, which likewise came from the idea that the artists themselves were, sort of, outside of constraints and oversight of big label influence.

Of course, as with alternative, that soon changed, and both terms were more indicative of a veneer of something more than an actual counter cultural value or subcultural origin. Now, the interesting realization inherent to all this is that the last 10 years (so this very much envelops the Zoomer perspective) lacked any such classifier. I mean, sure, there’s vaporwave, The Caretaker and a dozen or so internet centric genres, but the idea of counter cultural zeitgeist in music seems oddly diminished. Who or what is left that could be seen as a genuine heavy authority in the field, while also representing a perspective that counters everything mainstream? Well, how about this Canadian boomer who just went to a goddamn barn to record a blues rock album?

And really, it’s a fun exercise to look back on Neil Young’s work as a roadmap to countercultural ambitions and expression. Chronicling the death of the hippie dream during the 70s, Neil (yes, always first name basis) moved on to an oeuvre of odd genre experimentation during the 80s, which mostly enraged boomers but gave birth to a host of fun cult albums, such as the Kraftwerk/cyberpunk adjacent Trans, the acidic Life and the classic Freedom. Moving on to the 90s, Neil became a key influence to the grunge sound, scoring Gen X’s coming of age with majestic folk and rock albums: Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon, Sleeps with Angels, Mirror Ball, the Dead Man OST and Broken Arrow flooded second hand shops around the millennium, but they are a significant and successful run that proved its timelessness.

And then Neil’s grindset set in. Over the next decade, he released seven records that range from the odd to the magnetic: concept albums (Greendale), genre experiments (Are you passionate?) and pseudo sequels (Chrome Dreams II), all of them expanding on Neil Young the ‘character’; the aged anti-hippie and environmentalist who wanted to see Bush Jr. impeached and sung songs about reconfigured electronic cars. Yeah, this is weird and strange niche-art, knowingly dated and fearlessly in opposition of what people would listen to on the radio.

Since then, Neil only went weirder: the Daniel Lanois produced Le Noise and classic Crazy Horse style Psychedelic Pill aside, most people didn’t tune in to the orchestral/anti-orchestral Storytone, ignored the fun gimmick A Letter Home and scoffed at the ramshackle Peace Trail. The 2010s positioned Neil as much as an outsider as he had always been.

Given that the stoic Canadian always had his own perspective on current day developments, the idea of a Neil album that chronicled the lockdown was pretty much guaranteed. That he would enlist Crazy Horse to follow him into a barn (!) to record and then call the product Barn is so totally him, it almost seems like a fan orchestrated inside joke.

Refashioning the ultimate ‘country’ image into rock sacristy is drenched in irony, both unmasking rock mythology and poking fun at lockdown isolationism, not to mention Neil’s uneasy stance towards MOR country-rock (Harvest – his most successful and iconic record, and also the one he said came too close to being boring – was partially recorded in a barn, and had Neil shout “MORE BARN” as an aesthetic command during mixing sessions).

So much for the meta aspect – but how does the affair sound? Well, the barn is audible – the record often replicates Neil’s cherished ‘room sound’, with his voice dipping in and out, at times central, others lined behind the lead guitar, a whisper off to the side. The drums could be a little more present, but they’ve been a second player to string instruments in most of Neil’s catalogue.

And, speaking of, Nils Lofgren and Neil are both in pretty great form here, audibly so on the eight minute thirty second long (!!) “Welcome Back”, which ruminates on isolation and technology’s downfall (“Before your computer turns on you / And walking through the garden / You remember something that you’ve been through / And mingle with the stars in the sky”). “Heading West” is another enjoyable rock tune – it could have featured on pretty much any Crazy Horse record of the last 30 years – same goes for “Canerican”, which also includes some classic corny Neil’isms, grappling with his quasi dual citizenship.

The slower tracks, such as “Shape of You” and “They Might Be Lost”, feel almost improvisational in tone, with Neil’s vocal performance on the former being a little, well, raggedy. But they all work in the context of the fun, immediate recording spirit of Barn.

Honestly, it’s hard to debate quality with a Crazy Horse record, both because it’s already pre-conditioned how the sound is going to connect and due to the vast catalogue of typical songwriting stylistics Neil has played with in his five decades and 50 or so albums. Personally, I think “Don’t Forget Love” is a little too close to kitsch territory, something Neil has flirted with repeatedly in the past, probably his modus of counter-thesis to his usual irony. It’s an OK composition, but it’s a little too close to the modus of self-parody for me to work. On the other end of the scale, “Human Race” is a noisy, energetic track, which really outstays the slightly cocky activist lyrics – as right as Neil is regarding environmental disasters and the lack of necessary activity on the side of politicians, his plea to think of the children here is a little ‘boomerific’.

But honestly, I’m splitting hairs: Barn is a really solid Crazy Horse record, definitely in the upper third of Neil’s output over the last decade or two. There’s a lot of joy and atmosphere in the set, and while some of the tracks here might be a bit too typical of their genre tropes or Neil’s past, they also bring with them a timeless, warm sense of identity and perspective totally unique in the current music world. Even if it’s not a milestone for the Canadian, it still upholds his status as rock’s most important outsider, presenting an aesthetic that is whole alternative to anything mainstream.