Less than a year after he released A Letter Home, a '60s-heavy covers album recorded inside Jack White's 1947 Voice-O-Graph vinyl recording booth, Neil Young is back with another totally different (yet still idiosyncratic) recording project. Storytone is a collection of ten new Young songs presented two ways: solo and symphonic. The solo side isn't just acoustic guitar, mind you; there is also piano, harmonica, electric guitar, and what sounds like resonator guitar and ukulele in the mix. And "symphonic" is a bit of a misnomer, as the arrangements for "Say Hello To Chicago" and "Like You Used To Do" (which recalls his earlier Jimmy Reed cover, "Baby What You Want Me To Do" off Broken Arrow) are big band.
Given Young's recent split with Pegi Young — his wife of 36 years — and his publicized new romance with Daryl Hannah, Storytone reads in part as a juxtaposition of vulnerability and grandeur, rawness and schmaltz. It's an interesting snapshot of a man in transition, falling out of love, falling in love, meditating on humanity's relationship with nature and railing in its defense. He seems perhaps not quite right, yet suddenly more vital. On the demo-like solo versions, the songs are unsurprisingly more naked: Young at a piano with sustain singing the sad love songs "Plastic Flowers" and "Glimmer"; the quiet electric blues of "I Want To Drive My Car," whispered and weary.
When he calls the 92-piece orchestra in, the results are mixed. "Who's Gonna Stand Up?" is the standout track, complete with a coda (though the bass-y parts comically evoke battle scenes from Star Trek). As a call to action on environmentalism, it's an appropriate moment to unleash a big choir. Elsewhere, the symphony and the songs have a more tenuous connection, as on "When I Watch You Sleeping," on which the rickety-sounding drums, strummed guitar and harmonica and the string section co-exist more than gel. Like A Letter Home, Storytone is a sonic throwback, though in this case it's to a time when symphonies were everywhere, on soundtracks and country songs alike. If you don't let the aesthetic throw you (chimes begin and end "Tumbleweed," for instance), you'll hear some memorable and earnest new Neil Young tunes, including "I'm Glad I Found You." (Reprise)