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Complain all you want that Neil Young—easily one of the 10 greatest songwriters of the rock ’n’ roll era—hasn’t written a classic album in years. But to define late-model Young via the recorded output of the last decade is to ignore guitar and vocal performances as incendiary, confrontational, and irreverent as ever. On Americana, Young frees himself from the constraints of original material, focusing instead on the textures and raw, adrenal possibilities of his greatest band, Crazy Horse, and a fistful of American folk standards. Like so much that Young does, the concept borders on the perverse, which is precisely why it’s such a kick in the ass.
Those looking for technical sorcery and smooth production need not read further. This is Neil and the Horse at their crustiest. But it’s more than Neil’s production nihilism and antipathy toward slickness that makes this record remarkable. Young and Co. approach and reinterpret these songs with arrangements that are often revelations. Take the schoolhouse classic, “Oh Susannah,” which becomes a funky and chugging minor-key stomp rivaling the barbarism of Neil’s old ’66 Sunset Strip, fuzz-punk compatriots The Seeds. The miner tragedy, “Clementine,” is pervaded with darkness and desperation that conjures images of the protagonist as a grimy mechanic mourning the drowning of his love—“Down by the River” revisited, perhaps? Meanwhile, the classic Carolina murder ballad of Tom Dula (aka “Tom Dooley”)—blunted in the popular imagination by the Kingston Trio’s polite banjo version—is rendered tragic, brutal, and menacing on the back of Young’s wailing Deluxe and the zombie march rhythms of Crazy Horse.
The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” provides a touch of party relief amid the dark balladry in this selection of American greats. It’s a treat to hear drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot revisit their New York doo-wop roots: It’s a fascinating insight into the odd stew that made Crazy Horse among the most singular and quirky garage bands of all time.
“Wayfarin’ Stranger” is Neil at his most alone, save for Molina’s brushes-hi-hat-andsnare accompaniment to Young’s plaintive strumming. But none of the cuts sum up the twisted glory of Americana quite like “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain,” sung and played with such sinister, slashing undertones that you’re left confused about whether to run in terror from the girl rounding the bend or warn her about the pitchfork mob waiting at the station. Neil may pen a classic less frequently these days, but his penchant for finding the mystery and dark corners in any song still lends his work a restless vitality. —Charles Saufley
Must-hear tracks: “Oh Susannah,” “She’ll Be Comin’ ’Round the Mountain”