Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Americana

As a crooked-toothed, monocle-wearing Brit, I have little experience with the majority of the American folk classics that are covered in Neil Young‘s latest effort, Americana. Mention ‘Gallows Pole; to me and my first thought will be of Led Zeppelin III, not campfires, civil wars or the Old West. That said, the new life that is breathed in to these timely classics by the sound of Young’s old-time band Crazy Horse is not lost on me, but sadly, this does little to change the fact that the album, taken as a whole, ends up overstaying its welcome with a sound that isn’t suited to an hour long recording.

Praise where praise is due, the opening of the record is promising – showcasing the sound of the band as one of a refreshing roughness, complimenting the antique nature of the songs. This gruff, informal atmosphere is clear from the introduction of ‘Oh! Susannah’, which disregards overproduction and pitch-perfect playing in favour of loose, distorted guitars that immediately remove the song from its association with banjos and warbling kindergartener children. Young’s foot-tapping chorus of “b-a-n-j-o on my knee” suggests that the job of Americana will be to take these old classics and use them as a base for songwriting, infusing them with new meaning and life. Sadly, this is a promise that never quite comes to life.

‘Clementine’, follows a similar pattern to the first track – Young’s voice adding shady, desolate tones to the song’s chorus. This theme and general sound carries through to the third track, then the fourth, then the fifth, until the overarching problem of the album comes clear: there is only so far a band can go with one style, playing songs that are all driven by refrains and repeated choruses.

Young is an artist who works best with simple melodies and powerful lyrics, and while much has been made of Americana’s portrayal of historic folk songs as still relatable today, when viewed with a critical ear, they prove undeniably repetitive. Where the 1970 classic After the Gold Rush saw Young creating incredible poetry by himself, the lyrics of the public domain tunes of Americana are not something with which he can be credited (time travel scenarios aside). As such, the music of the album must be judged solely as music – and as it happens, Americana unfortunately falls victim to its own concept, quickly becoming dreary and unvaried.

This is a criticism driven by the unnecessary length of the tracks, most of which run over or close to 5 minutes, but offer little in the way of variation. Crazy Horse give some brilliant jamming breakdowns, but the return of Young repeating the same one or two lines of chorus proves inevitable, and becomes, sadly, tiring to the ear. Take ‘Tom Dula’ for example – I’d personally never heard the folk tune before, but you can be damn sure that in the song’s eight minutes, I heard the words “Hang down your head Tom Dula” enough to suffice a lifetime. It’s in these moments that you may find yourself wishing you were simply listening to an original Young composition, unconstrained by dated, folkish concepts and lyrics.

Even the addition of atmosphere eventually becomes tedious. By the time the familiarity of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain’ arrives, the somewhat aggressive, ominous take on the lyrics, mirrored by chants from Crazy Horse, is plainly predictable – weighted down by seven preceding songs that follow the same pattern. Ultimately, there’s not one thing that can be said about one track that can’t be said about all the others.

Its all quite disappointing really, as these are tunes that would likely work independently, as nods to the listener, footnotes or occasional live performances. When strung together in an album however, they are unlikely to render more than one full listen. All in all, while three stars is certainly not a terrible rating, Americana proves a disappointing outing for the grim-faced legend.


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About Josh Gripton

Josh is an English student currently studying English Literature with Creative Writing at University in the UK. When he's not wasting time acquiring the grappling beam in Super Metroid, you'll find him being far more productive - listening to Black Sabbath and reading comics. He hopes his work at The Silver Tongue will help him get his writing out to the public and professional world, heaven forbid.