Five decades into his career with 40 plus studio albums under his belt, and with an attitude and musical style that earned him the sobriquet “the godfather of grunge”, 70 year-old Neil Young doesn’t need to justify himself to anyone and is happy to march to the beat of his own drummer. With Earth, Young offers up 98 minutes of music from his 2015 Rebel Content Tour, with the album’s 13 tracks, which span Young’s career, selected because they are “about living here on our planet together.”
Backed by Promise of the Real – a Los Angeles based rock band featuring Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas – as he was on 2015’s The Monsanto Years, Young hasn’t produced a standard live album as, for better or worse, plenty of overdubs have been thrown into the mix – both in the gaps between songs and over the songs themselves. Overdubs of animal and insect noises, sounds of thunder and rain, and the occasional bustle of traffic. Yep, the sounds of nature, of earth, just in case Young’s message of environmental activism has escaped your attention.
As is fitting a live recording opener, Mother Earth (Natural Anthem), is rough around the edges with the backing vocals sitting a little off in the song. Hey, it’s all good, live performances take a little while to flow, and once we hit My Country Home and The Monsanto Years everything is warmed up and running smoothly – excepting the excessive use of animal noises on the preceding Seed Justice. It’s always a little hard to tell what aspects of Young’s singing is stylistic and what aspects are just poor form – truly part of his charm – but his singing on The Monsanto Years leaves something to be desired but, even so, the song manages to not feel overly long at 8 minutes.
Vampire Blues is a satisfying blues song with plenty of Young’s distinctive guitar work on display, and while the metaphor of oil drilling as vampirism – “I’m a vampire baby/sucking blood from the earth/…/sell you 20 barrels worth” – could have ended up feeling like a blunt instrument, the warmth of the blues style and the choral refrain of “Chevron” means it all just works. Anyone in doubt of Young’s association with grunge and alternative rock should check-out the dark, heavy, riff of Hippie Dream and Promise of the Real make a good show of it, but I was left imagining how much dirtier it would have been with Crazy Horse providing the backing.
For a live recording the piano and vocals of After The Gold Rush sounds like it came out of a studio. Big Box feels like the most immediate of Young’s message songs, with the lines “too big to fail/too rich for jail” and “corporations have feelings” reverberating well in a post-Global Financial Crisis world, which is odd given the overwhelming environmental focus of Earth – not that social and environmental justice are disengaged from each other. A 28 minute jam on Love & Only Love ends Earth, which would be absolutely amazing for a live audience, but is a bit much here.
And really, that’s kind of the problem with Earth; it’s all a bit much. Folk and country Neil Young sits cheek to jowl with rockin’ out Neil Young, and while Earth is themed it doesn’t feel coherent in mood and energy. Sadly, the overdubs are likely to be element that make this a memorable live album, which is arguably better than being forgotten as a merely reasonable live album.