Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Neil Young, 'Dreamin' Man Live '92'

As major record labels strive to get their major holiday releases in stores by Thanksgiving, December and the bulk of January become dead zones of sorts. Little new, or even newly reissued or archived, music surfaces.

Leave it to Neil Young to break the trend. 2009 saw the April issue of a new studio album (the bio-diesel-loving Fork in the Road), the June release of the first boxed set in his extensive Archives series and the July reissue of his first four studio records. Now comes Dreamin' Man '92. And again, in typical Neil Young fashion, the music comes from an altogether different time than any of his other releases last year.

Dreamin' Man takes us away from the inaugural phase of Young's solo career (1968-71), chronicled on three previous archival albums released since 2006. Instead we fast forward to fall 1992, when Young was touring behind Harvest Moon, an immensely popular studio record that rekindled the country-folk appeal of his 1972 milestone album, Harvest, albeit with a far smoother sheen.

What is so arresting about Dreamin' Man is that it also revisits the solo acoustic setting that has defined much of Young's performance career. In other words, he is playing in exactly the same manner as on two of his previous archival records (2007's Live at Massey Hall 1971 and 2008's Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968). But the years obviously reveal themselves on Dreamin' Man, from the scrappy, cranky banjo eulogy for a hound dog in Old King to the bouncy pop meditation of You and Me to the light escapist acoustics of Harvest Moon.

Stripped of the studio album's tasteful but pervasive gloss, these solo versions possess a nicely unvarnished fancy that befits a more sage chapter in Young's vast folk legacy.

Dreamin' Man also limits itself exclusively to the 10 songs from Harvest Moon. But it reshuffles their running order, moving its darkest and starkest songs to the end.

Near the finish line, we run into Natural Beauty, an 11-minute, hymnlike meditation that portrays man as both emancipator and destroyer of the earth. "One more night to go, one more sleep upon your burning banks," Young sings in a quiet howl. "A greedy man never knows what he's done."

The concluding War of Man isn't as elegiac. It spins a more blunt, concise and inevitable prophesy in its chorus: "No one wins."

These dark campfire visions possessed a mighty glow on Harvest Moon. Within Dreamin' Man's wondrous solo setting, they become internalized forest fires and reveal themselves as some of Young's most decidedly unsweetened dreams.