Neil Young and Crazy Horse Are Predictably Great on “Barn”

There's nothing surprising on Young's 14th album with Crazy Horse, but why mess with a good thing?

December 10, 2021 12:36 pm
Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Neil Young and Crazy Horse

If you’ve been paying attention at all in the more than 50 years since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, you’ve got a pretty good idea of what to expect from a Neil Young and Crazy Horse album: some sweet campfire tunes, some heavy rockers that speak truth to power, all of it raw and loose, as if it were tossed off in one take, on a whim. (Which of course, in many cases, it was.) Especially in recent years, Young hasn’t exactly been one to deviate from the formula, but who can blame him for refusing to mess with a good thing?

There aren’t any major surprises on Barn, his new album with Crazy Horse (Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Nils Lofgren, who replaces the retired Frank “Poncho” Sampedro). But that’s exactly what makes these 10 tracks (out today via Reprise Records) so great: they feel like vintage Young, an accomplishment that feels more impressive with each passing year. (How many other 76-year-old artists do you know who haven’t yet lost any of their vocal range or creative drive?)

As you could have probably guessed from the title and Young’s long history of playing in cavernous farm structures, Barn was recorded in a barn. More specifically, the band decamped to a restored 19th-century log barn in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains during the COVID-19 pandemic, and you can feel the way that location seeped into the music. As Young recently told Rolling Stone, “The thing is, logs on top of each other create a ripple of roundness. There’s no squares. Squares are the enemy of sound. They create a standing wave, which makes some frequencies jump way out and other ones disappear. So you have to compensate for all that when you’re recording. We hardly had to do any of that. Everything sounded really good, right in the building.”

But even beyond the way sound waves bounce off the logs, Barn conjures up imagery of sprawling rural landscapes and fireside chats. As always with Young, nature is a recurring theme, whether he’s singing about falling leaves and “the honkers flying low above the waves” on the lovely, harmonica-driven “Song of the Seasons” or addressing climate change on the rollicking “Change Ain’t Never Gonna.” (“Ten men working had to get a new job/Try to save the planet from a fuel-burning mob,” he sings. “Who turned on everyone for being so controlling/Taking away all the freedom they’ve been knowing.”)

And while references to the pandemic that was raging while the album was being recorded are limited to vague allusions to “masked people walking everywhere,” Young remains just as politically conscious as ever. “Canerican” is inspired by the Ontario native’s new American citizenship, something he applied for specifically so that he could vote for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. “I am American, American is what I am,” he declares on the track. “I was born in Canada, came south to join a band/Got caught up in the big time, travelin’ through the land/Up on the stage, I see the changes comin’ to this country/I am Canerican, Canerican is what I am.”

But while he’s still concerned with big, important issues like saving the environment and advocating for change in his adopted home country, Young also gets personal on Barn, looking back on his childhood and recalling his parents’ split on “Heading West” (“I was almost in my teens/Mom and Daddy went their separate ways/My brother stayed when we left that day/Heading west to find the good old days”) and penning sweet odes to his love for wife Daryl Hannah with “Tumblin’ Thru The Years” and “Song of the Seasons.”

Though she’s credited as “dhlovelife,” Hannah also directed Barn‘s accompanying documentary, a Beatles: Get Back, fly-on-the-wall type of doc that follows Young and Crazy Horse as they record the album. The film, also called Barn, is screening in select theaters across North America this weekend (Dec. 10 and Dec. 11). It’s included as part of the deluxe edition of the album, and it can also be purchased as a stand-alone Blu-ray.

Young has always been extremely prolific — Barn is his 41st studio album overall and his 14th with Crazy Horse — so it makes sense that he’d make the most of his time in quarantine by bringing his band together for another excellent collection of songs. Barn is, of course, just one of many forthcoming Young projects, including a two-hour film and a record about the making of Harvest pegged to that classic’s 50th anniversary this February. But while he may already be shifting his focus to the next thing, Barn is worth savoring, if only to remind yourself that this legendary musician continues to churn out new work that rivals his best from decades ago.

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