Chrome Dreams II [CD/DVD]
Neil Young spent his 2006 hawking Living with War, an album as immediate as a news bulletin, so perhaps it made sense that after its promo push was done he would retreat into the past, planning to finally finish Archives, the long-promised box set of unreleased performances from his vaults. Two individual discs of classic live performances were released in the winter of 2006/2007, acting as a teaser for the proposed fall release of the box, but like with most things involving Neil, things didn't work precisely as planned, as he once again pushed Archives to the back burner so he could release Chrome Dreams II, a sequel to an album that never came out in the first place. The first Chrome Dreams was slated for a 1977 release, but for some indiscernible reason Young scrapped the album, parsing out some of the songs on subsequent albums, sometimes re-recording the originals, sometimes overdubbing, sometimes just sticking the previously unreleased tracks onto new albums. Among the Chrome Dreams songs that popped later are some of his greatest, including "Like a Hurricane" and an originally acoustic "Powderfinger" and "Pocahontas," along with other such excellent tunes as "Sedan Delivery," "Too Far Gone," and "Look Out for My Love," a pedigree that would suggest that Chrome Dreams II could include its fair share of major songs. Despite the inclusion of the long-bootlegged (and simply long at a lumbering 18 minutes) "Ordinary People," that's not quite true: it's a modest collection of stray songs and new tunes, pieced together in a fashion similar to 1989's Freedom, which in fact is where the 1977 "Too Far Gone" was finally unveiled.
Indeed, Chrome Dreams II shares more similarities to Freedom than the original Chrome Dreams -- so much so that it's a mystery why it's dubbed as a sequel, but it's a mystery not worth pondering, as there are few clues to their correlation, and even if a definitive answer to their kinship could be dredged up, it wouldn't illuminate the 2007 album, which is merely a good Neil Young album. Perhaps a little more than good, actually, as this has a shagginess and tattered heart that's been missing from his work for a long time, as he's spent a good chunk of the past 15 years pursuing conceptual works, ranging from thematic concept albums (Living with War, Greendale) to musical genre exercises (Are You Passionate?, Prairie Wind). Here Neil dabbles in all his signatures, starting the album with the sweet country corn of "Beautiful Bluebird," then careening to the mildly menacing minor-key groove "Boxcar" before he gets to the light, almost bouncy soul-pop of "The Believer" (complete with call-and-response backing vocals), the Crazy Horse mysticism of "Spirit Road," the lazy loping country of "Every After," and the elongated guitar workout of "No Hidden Path." He even gets way out with "The Way," singing with a children's choir, a stab at innocence that's cheerfully at odds with the sludgy "Dirty Old Man," an unexpected revival of the boneheaded off-color jokes of "Welfare Mothers," and then, of course, there's the album's centerpiece, "Ordinary People," a winding epic recorded with the Bluenotes in 1988 that's dated in its splashy production (and perhaps its blaring horns, since Neil largely abandoned the Bluenotes after This Note's for You), yet it sounds immediate and gripping. It's the kind of song to build an album upon, which is precisely what Neil has done with Chrome Dreams II, using it as an excuse to round up other songs with no home. This doesn't make for an album that holds together thematically the way other latter-day Neil albums do, but its mess is endearing, recalling how charmingly ragged albums like After the Gold Rush, Tonight's the Night, Rust Never Sleeps, and Freedom are, even if Chrome Dreams II never manages to soar as high as those classics.