The hideous painting on the sleeve was a little off putting to say the least. The song titles too were unfamiliar, but in the top right hand corner the price label read £1.99, so it had to be worth a shot. Yet another bargain from Rebel Records. As soon as I put it on the turntable, it began to crackle away. A good sign. It must have seen some proper service with its previous owner. It’s the unplayed records you want to worry about. But the surface noise could not disguise the fact that something had gone badly wrong with the production – the electric guitar seemed suffocated, its strangulated stabs and squeals occasionally puncturing what sounded like a thick protective quilt. And those trebly tonsils, buried so low in the mix. But here was a record I couldn’t help but fall in love with, and it has been a favourite ever since.
Even I’m not convinced it’s his best album, but it’s almost universal dismissal I find irksome: “a godawful debut”; a “stuttering false start” to his solo career, or at best a mere “prelude to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere“. It’s as if he was saving everything in reserve, gearing up for the real thing, but that rarely happens with debut albums. Popular music is all about the present moment, and by autumn ’68, Neil Young had a point to prove. The wax on the last Buffalo Springfield album had barely had time to dry before Neil Young hit the stores. The cover of Last Time Around told the story of Buffalo Springfield’s sad and premature demise. The photo montage pictured Young positioned with his back to the others, steadfastly facing in the opposite direction as if he could no longer even bear to pretend anymore. Bruce Palmer’s departure in early ’67 had effectively sounded the death knell for the band. Palmer had been, according to Young, the “soul of the band”, if you will, Buffalo Springfield’s very own Brian Jones. The clash of egos would play out a familiar battle and everything soon fell apart. Last Time Around was a hastily assembled contractual obligation album, but it had in effect delivered Young’s first solo recording to the world, ‘I Am A Child’, which foreshadowed the bedsit folk troubadour of After The Gold Rush.
By August 1968, Young was back in the studio with David Briggs and Jack Nitzsche. It was in many ways a painful time. In Jimmy McDonough’s bio Shakey, Young recalled: “It was either a lonely experience or a labour of love. I was really glad when it was over, because it was so technical, took so much thinking.”
The instrumental overtures which kick off each side provide scant indication of any ‘labour of love”, at least on Young’s part. The laidback country twang of the first, ‘The Emperor of Wyoming’ is matched to a relatively unfussy string arrangement, while the second, the brief Nitzsche-penned ‘String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill’ only hints at some of the complexity characteristic of the rest of the album.
A more explicit benchmark of the album’s ‘everything bar the kitchen sink’ production, is ‘The Loner’ where strings soar beneath meaty chunks of stomping guitar, at times fizzing like a squadron of mosquitos fighting for air in a glass bottle, which has the subtle acoustic interludes running for cover. There’s s parallel performance on the conquering metallic riff of ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, which renders as mere subtext the intricate underlay of piano and organ.
Young has stated that he wished his voice on the record to sound “a million miles away, but right there” and in the floating reverie of ‘I Could Have Her Tonight’ his wish is granted. Barely whispered, it’s unassuming country jangle has a strange little twist in the tail which Television may have lifted for the coda of ‘Torn Curtain’.
Perhaps the most polarising track on the album is ‘The Old Laughing Lady’. Jack Nitzche’s overwrought orchestration often comes in for some criticism, but when Ry Cooder’s languid guitar and Nitzsche’s fluid electric piano ooze into the big soul chorus – take a bow Merry Clayton, Brenda Holloway, Gloria Jones et al – the results are utterly euphoric. It’s simply magnificent.
If Nitzsche’s aspirations were ambitious here, then David Briggs’ contributions were equally so. ‘Here We Are In The Years’ – on the surface a stately ballad – weaves little melodic miracles throughout its patchwork structure and features one of Young’s most earnest vocal performances: “Here we are in the years/Where the showman shifts the gears/Lives become careers/Children cry in fear/Let us out of here!” “We got tones nobody’s ever got, even Hendrix” said Briggs at the time, and here – bizarre moog solo aside – the balance was just about right. Similarly on ‘I’ve Loved Her So Long’ the arrangements (vibes, electric piano, soul chorus, even woodwind) are well-balanced, pretty and entirely satisfying.
The best tracks more than offset the album’s one blatant misstep, the bumblingly neurotic and supremely self-indulgent nine minute acoustic dirge ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’, of which the less said the better.
I am sure I speak not only for myself when I adjudge the best Buffalo Springfield moments to be ‘Expecting To Fly’ and ‘Broken Arrow’, both transcendent sound collages, as opposed to ‘For What Its Worth’ or Neil’s very own ‘Burned’. That he aimed to crystallise some of that airborne-ness, and twine a few fragments of baroque into the album’s tapestry is most certainly a plus, and not a minus. Neil Young is the last time he would venture quite as boldly in that direction. The great sin from that moment onwards was to ‘overthink’ composing and arranging. That perhaps accounts in part for such a prolific output. Perhaps he was right too, but undoubtedly something was lost in the process. For the man himself, Neil Young represented a steep learning curve, and if for him it was a failure, for us it was a glorious one. (JJ)