Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 'Barn' Is Built on a Familiar Foundation
Published Dec 07, 2021There are two faces of Neil Young: Harvest-folkie and Zuma-rocker. But the truth is, he's at his best when he straddles both approaches and (more times than not) at his worst when he wanders. On Barn — his 41st LP, and 14th with Crazy Horse — the proud "Canerican" (as he refers to himself) decides to plant himself squarely between both modes, creating a breezy 10-track affair that sounds reassuring and recognizable.
Co-produced by Niko Bolas, who helped record one of Neil's finest works (1989's Freedom) and joined by his longtime musical partners Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, Barn finds Young reaching back to his glory days for something familiar. On tracks like the stomping, dusty "Heading West" and the moody, eight-minute album highlight "Welcome Back," he certainly attempts to keep his fiery demeanour alive. But for what numbers like the excellent "Human Race" make up for in sonic intensity and gallant themes — an anti-corporation dirge that shows Neil and recurring Crazy Horse member Nils Lofgren hammering out beefy chords — many other tracks lack the lyrical acumen of old.
While even Young's most autobiographical ("Old Man") and tender ("Harvest Moon") songs deliver a level of poetry and mystery to his plainly spoken lyrics, much of his folk material here is paired with often cheesy and typical phrasing. The acoustic, yearning "Song of the Seasons" shows Young waxing poetic between wistful accordion and harmonica, singing, "I see the palace where the queen still reigns, behind her walls and lonesome gates / The king is gone now and she remains / I feel her banners rippling in the rain." But this vibrant opener is countered with tracks like "Shape of You," a love letter to his wife, Daryl Hannah (who directed the corresponding film for this LP), where Neil drops well-worn lines like, "You changed my life for the better / Wore my love like your favourite sweater."
That said, at 76 years of age, Young is still making more shrewd, relevant, and valiant albums than any of his peers not named Bob Dylan. "They Might Be Lost" is a gentle, whispered ode to "the old days" that pulls at the heartstrings, while the gang vocals of "Change Ain't Never Gonna" show Neil as angry as ever about our stubbornness to face climate change.
Barn will not go down in history as one of his best remembered LPs, but it nonetheless provides listeners with everything what they want out of a late-career Neil Young: a familiar nod and wink to both sides of Shakey. (Reprise)