Has any contemporary artist with an extensive and storied artistic reputation been left to his own idiosyncrasies more than Neil Young? Given his level of genre hopping, thematic excesses and shifts between low-fi and ultra sonic rich audio, it’s hard to imagine any record label conglomerate, much less Warner Brothers, still bothering with him. Yet, here Young is again with a Warner (technically, Reprise) concert album full of urgency and indulgence to serve as a document of his ongoing fearlessness.
Earth is a scrapbook of recordings from a tour last year with Promise of the Real, the youthful rock troupe fronted by Lukas Nelson that sounds eerily at times like Crazy Horse, the garage band that long ago defined the coarse energy of Young’s electric music. But despite covering songs from throughout his career, the new record’s thrust is on revisiting tunes from last year’s The Monsanto Years, the songsmith’s world class rant on the evils of GMOs and corporate agriculture. Add to that a serenade of sounds by, as Young’s website puts it, “a legion of earth’s living things” between and sometimes during songs, and you have a live album of heartfelt but head scratching design.
There is a perhaps over-obvious thematic intent to this double-disc set that provides Earth with its title. The vehement topicality of music from The Monsanto Years speaks for itself, but the older works have been selected with an eye to their ecological shelf life — After the Gold Rush, My Country Home and Human Highway. Of particular interest is a grinding version of Vampire Blues. A deep cut from one of Young’s greatest records, 1974’s On the Beach, it confirms Young’s current sense of strife over the state of the planet’s well being is deep seeded (“I’m a vampire, baby, sucking blood from the earth. I’m a vampire, baby, I’ll sell you 20 barrels worth”). No wonder the corporate protest grudge/grunge match Big Box, one of the more caustic newer songs, sounds so at home in its company (“Too big to fail, too rich for jail”).
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The nature sounds get to be a bit much, as do the choral-like backup harmonies. Collectively, they are post-production devices seemingly summoned to further a theme that is already pretty plain spoken to begin with. That misgiving fades, though, when Promise of the Real cranks up.
The band performs with a sense of order Crazy Horse often purposely passed on, yet there is still plenty of electric gusto to egg Young on during his typically riotous guitar rampages. Such teamwork goes nuclear during a 21 minute version of 1990s Love and Only Love, nearly seven minutes of which is devoted to a coda of fractured bashing, crashing and feedback. That’s when Earth really rocks your world.