Neil Young

Silver and Gold

What distinguishes Silver and Gold from among the 30 or so other studio albums in Neil Young's massive catalog is that it belongs in the handful that tills the ground known in Young parlance as "country Neil." Since 1969, Young has worked the occasional country-folk song, or an entire album of the stuff, into his solo repertoire. For fans of Harvest Moon, Comes a Time, and parts of Harvest, Silver and Gold is a slam-dunk; it holds up against any of his rootsy-folky-accessible records, and arguably surpasses them, because those albums weren't perfect either.

Silver and Gold has been long awaited -- it's been four years (an eternity in Young time) since his last album, Broken Arrow, which Young and Crazy Horse followed with a tour, concert film, and live album. Then there was the rare acoustic tour, where he performed the new songs, and the last three Bridge School benefits, where he debuted them. Then there's the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young reunion album and tour, and the fact that he gave three of his better new songs, "Looking Forward," "Out of Control," and "Slowpoke," to that ill-conceived project, leaving 10 for his own album. Take those three songs, chuck a couple on Silver and Gold, and you've got one great disc, because the CSNY songs mine the same lyrical vein as Silver and Gold's: All roads lead to the heart.

Young's made a habit of writing intensely personal love songs, specifically to his wife of 22 years, Pegi, and this set is dedicated to her. If the prospect of a long liaison that includes children doesn't excite as an album concept, fair enough. But for lovers of fine, California country-rock with a myopic theme, there's a surprising wealth and diversity to the material. There's the upbeat, let's-get-reacquainted song "Good to See You," while the piano-based "Horseshoe Man" deals in love's mysteries. Who-needs-stuff-when-you've-got-love is the idea behind "Distant Camera," whose sound is that of vintage acoustic Young. "Razor Love" is empathic, with a spacious beauty, and "Red Sun" is a devotional hymn to commitment that finds Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt sitting in. Both Harris and Ronstadt are two of Young's previous collaborators who, among others, help give the record its old-home feel; other key personnel include Booker T. & the MGs bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, consummate old-school sessionmen drummer Jim Keltner and keyboardist Spooner Oldham, and steel guitarist and co-producer (with Young) Ben Keith.

And yet there are failures. "Daddy Went Walkin'" grapples with aging less eloquently than, say, "Old Man." The autobiographical sketch "Buffalo Springfield Again," with its title refrain and cloying guitar break, is cringe-worthy, but one could reason that at 55 years old, Young has earned the right to wax nostalgic -- he can't keep rockin' in the free world forever. A glimpse of where this fairly lightweight but no doubt crowd-pleasing record could've stood in the Young pantheon comes at the end. "Without Rings" has a somber folk melody with a low-toned vocal, featuring just Young and guitar. It's breathtaking -- no, heart-stopping -- to use two hoary clichés. Like his songs that conjure aliens, highways, Indians, broken arrows, and rusted wings, one can only guess what it means. But it sure sounds right.

 
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