In the American Grain

Neil Young’s legendary inconsistencies.

Who is this guy?

“I’ll always remember something Chris Rock said …” is a fine way to start an anecdote, but it does not meet any muse’s definition of a good piece of songwriting. These are the compromises that one makes for Neil Young, the old, irascible, Bartleby-like guitar hero whose career has rested on an aesthetic of powerful clumsiness. The Chris Rock riff appears, awkward and immovable, in the middle of ” No Wonder,” a track from Young’s latest album, Prairie Wind. It’s hard to imagine someone on the cusp of 60 with nearly 40 albums to his name growing more inscrutable with age. But Young’s head, cluttered with marooned ideals and other people’s voices, has grown more fascinating over time, particularly on the three albums he has made since 9/11: the bizarre and unsettlingly frank Are You Passionate?; the gnarled, folkloric Greendale; and now the wispy, history-beaten Prairie Wind.

The appeal of Neil Young has always been mysterious. His voice is neither pretty nor strong, resembling the insistent, unsettled whine of a kettle whistle. He writes songs steeped in American Studies 101, yet he grew up in Canada, imbibing those notions at arm’s length. He has been a model of iconoclasm, nearly letting his career implode many, many times—most notably in the early-1980s, when he leaped from punk-approved arena rock to isolationist country to synth-pop to rockabilly, all while supporting Reagan. At times, it appears that the only coherent thread running through his career—especially the last 25 or so years—is that he is one of the most inconsistent artists of our time.

Young started out as a folk singer in mid-1960s Toronto. Sensing that the coffeehouses of Canada probably weren’t the best launching pads to stardom, he moved to Los Angeles, where he helped form Buffalo Springfield. Tensions within the band—a constant theme in Young’s musical life—inspired him to go solo, and by the early-1970s he had cut a series of folk-rock albums obsessed with the themes and images of rural labor. Through his music, Young was revisiting America’s own journey westward as a romantic, unfulfilled ideal. It was a lonely journey: After the gold rush—after the dream came true—what were you really left with? For Young, it wasn’t much. His work throughout the late 1970s and 1980s showed the unchecked randomness of a 2-year-old, and perhaps that’s why we kept listening. As Young’s manager explains in Jimmy McDonough’s Young biography, Shakey: “Neil’s a that-day guy.” There was little about him that seemed at all contrived.

Eventually, this earnestness made it impossible to keep score, which was one reason people stopped caring. Despite an early-1990s revival spurred by Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam, the Young of recent years is usually regarded as a curmudgeonly old codger, lost and rudderless, warbling about histories foreign to us all.

This changed on Sept. 21, 2001. Ten days after the terrorist attacks on New York City, Young performed a stirring and savage version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” on a television special. The next year, he released Are You Passionate?, a surprisingly low-key and generally weak album of Southern soul-influenced grooves. Young transferred much of that clenched-teeth energy into a retreat toward something primal and simple—something he romantically (and somewhat naively) called “passion.”Are You Passionate? was notable for ” Let’s Roll,” a gauche 9/11 tribute song written from the perspective of a passenger on Flight 93, resisting hijackers and downing the plane short of its target.

While the song was memorable solely for being terrible, it offered a template for his follow-up, 2003’s excellent Greendale. If the loosened emotions and “Let’s Roll”-style machismo of Are You Passionate? represented a knee-jerk indignation to the events of 9/11, Greendale was protest at its mildest and most subtle. Everything about it seemed provincial in a good way, from Young’s calm strumming to the album’s cover, a hand-drawn map of a town surrounded by trees and water, rather than fiber optics and airplanes. The cover called to mind Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a unified collection of short stories published in 1919. Anderson’s bird’s-eye tales about the town’s inhabitants mingle together casually. The characters file in and out as chronology takes a backseat to an evocation of the choked but questing spirit of the American Midwest.

Similarly, Young’s Greendale was the story of a bygone way of life, songs picking up and then dropping storylines with a confusing ease. At the story’s center was the Green family; fanning outward were subplots involving a murder, some cocaine, protests against cable news and the president, and faith in the younger generation. But the album’s conscience is Young’s—on “Falling From Above,” Grandpa Green wonders out loud, “Seems like that guy singing this song/ Been doin’ it for a long time/ Is there anything he knows/ That he ain’t said?”

Young claims that he wrote Greendale on the fly, meaning he didn’t know until the morning he recorded ” Grandpa’s Interview“that the album’s looming patriarch—the character clearly patterned after himself—was going to die. Near the end of the album, as the Green granddaughter experiences her political coming-of-age, Young seems to step out of the conceit for an instant: “The moral of this story/ Is try not to get too old.” Young has spent much of his creative life pining for a simpler, imaginary America and looking for a place like Greendale. Having created one out of thin air, he discovered that life there wasn’t so simple after all. Sept. 11 wasn’t an occasion for nostalgia or retreat; it was a reminder that good and evil still shadowed human affairs, not just overseas, or in the desert battlefields Grandpa followed on televisions, but in the houses of government and on the roads of this idyllic town.

In a way, this was the moment Young had been preparing for throughout his whole career—he had survived needles and youth; he had grown into the ” Old Man” for whom he felt affinity back in 1972; and he had lived too long to tempt the “better to burn out than fade away” sentiment from 1979’s “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black),”* famously quoted by Kurt Cobain in his suicide note. Young’s latest album, Prairie Wind, is the sound of someone who survived it all, only to survive it all again these past few years. (Young’s father died and he himself discovered that he had a brain aneurysm before its recording.) Like his best albums from the early-1970s, it is a spare and mostly acoustic outing towed by his now-flickering voice: “If you follow every dream/ You might get lost,”* he whispers on “The Painter,” while the gentle lilt of “Falling off the Face of the Earth” belies Young’s depressing, unmoored lyrics.

The album ends with ” When God Made Me,” a track he performed on a recent Katrina benefit program. Backed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers and a lone piano, Young sings a series of rhetorical questions about the nature of faith and society: “Was He thinking about my country or the color of my skin? Did He give me the gift of voice so some could silence me?” The song flares with each verse. It’s as though Young knows that he can ask these questions only so much longer, as time (or rock obsolescence) will soon catch up with him. Better to fade away, but with a clenched jaw and a quickened pulse.

Corrections, Oct. 21: The article originally incorrectly identified the title of Neil Young’s 1979 song, “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black).” ( Return to the corrected sentence.) The article also omitted the word “every” from the lyrics of “The Painter.” (Return to the corrected sentence.)