Why should we give much concern to the re-release of an anthology? Well, when it is as valuable a representation as “Decade” is to the critical and commercial heyday of Neil Young, a celebration is unavoidable.
Upon its initial release 40 years ago, “Decade” was designed less as a conventional greatest hits set and more like the sort of retrospective adopted for detailed boxed sets that are now commonplace milestones for veteran artists. Even Young, who decided on the song selection, viewed “Decade” as the summation of a chapter, rather than a career.
Listen to “Decade” again in 2017, and the record presents an astonishing sense of history that simply couldn’t be appreciated in 1977. Much of the reason stems from how uneven Young’s music has been since then. There certainly were triumphs that postdated “Decade” (in particular, the Crazy Horse summits “Rust Never Sleeps” and “Ragged Glory”) and there is no denying how wildly prolific and stylistically adventurous Young always has been as an artist. But the decade chronicled on “Decade,” without question, represents Young’s glory years — a period of psychedelic pop expression, Laurel Canyon folk reflection and garage-rock rampaging that predated the punk and grunge movements. Similarly, those adventures play out here through songs with Buffalo Springfield; Crazy Horse; and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. To explore that music again on “Decade” is to retrace one of the most creative eras in the evolution of modern pop.
The striking points of Young’s early years are represented though unobvious songs, including “Expecting to Fly” (officially a Buffalo Springfield track, even though Young is the only band member playing on it) and “The Old Laughing Lady” (from Young’s 1969 self-titled debut solo album). Both remain gorgeously surreal portraits that let their folk preferences warp into the epic orchestration that ran rampant during the “Pet Sounds”-“Sgt. Pepper” era. They sound less like Southern California folk than they do the Moody Blues.
Subsequent years would offer folk tunes of homespun candor and simplicity (“Sugar Mountain”), electric statements of stunning topicality (“Ohio”) and extraordinary mergers of the two (“Walk On” and “For the Turnstiles,” both from Young’s most underrated album, 1974’s “On the Beach”).
“Decade” stops slightly short of being a complete chronicle of that time. Young’s lost 1973 live masterpiece, “Time Fades Away” is again ignored. Likewise, the 10-year period represented here means excluding the two classics that closed out the ’70s: “Comes a Time” and “Rust Never Sleeps.”
But with three hours of essential listening packed onto two discs and selling for a mere $15 (a vinyl reissue, which surfaced in the spring, costs a bit more), the resurrection of “Decade” serves as the restoration of a pop legacy.
Want to know why Neil Young is so revered? Here’s the primer that tells almost the whole the story.