6 ½ months. That’s how long it’s been since we had a new Neil Young record. Only 6 ½ months! Un-bloody-believable! April’s A Letter Home was one of the most deeply personal covers albums ever recorded – in part due to the retro-tastic way in which it was recorded (in a 1940’s direct-to-vinyl booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records), but more so because it comprised a set of songs Neil grew up loving, learning and performing across rural Manitoba starting out half a century ago.
Fast forward to November 2014 and you could be forgiven for assuming the now ironically named Young (he’s 68!) would kick back, comfortable in the knowledge that he’s already released a record for this year’s promotion cycle. But oh how gravely, colossally wrong you would be in this assumption. Never one to downplay his wild ambitiousness, instead Young has released the brand new, sprawling double album Storytone – a record that encompasses his enviable craftsmanship as a songwriter for ten new tunes, THEN team up with an orchestra and a swinging big band to take them into the stratosphere.
The thing that made A Letter Home so special was its immediacy – just a man and his guitar/piano, eschewing all sonic intricacies in favour of simply letting the songs speak for themselves. The first disc of Storytone is in much the same vein with Young’s inimitable introspection at the fore in a way it hasn’t really been since his early-to-mid-‘70s prime. The overall feel of Disc One is beautifully reminiscent of 1971’s Live at Massey Hall bootleg with an intimacy and honesty few in music have ever managed to match. If you’ve read either Jimmy McDonough’s hefty tome about Young’s life Shakey or Young’s 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, it’s all the more miraculous that someone who’s lived the life Neil Young has lived is still breathing, let alone writing and singing at the top of his game (with a truly astounding lack of naturally aged degradation in his vocals) as he approaches his seventh decade on earth.
In both incarnations, opener Plastic Flowers is a great snapshot of the album as a whole: Acoustically, it’s stark and profound with echoes from the title track of his classic After The Goldrush, yet when translated with the lush grandeur of an orchestra at its disposal, the song takes on a swooning, cinematic quality. Along with tracks like Glimmer and Tumbleweed – both great, if a little on the overblown side when stacked next to their bare-boned counterparts – it serves as a timely update of Harvest gems like A Man Needs a Maid or There’s a World and while diehard Crazy Horse fans may be left scoffing,
The swampy blues shuffles of I Want To Drive My Car and Like You Used To Do ares hushed and sinister like a drunken voicemail message with Neil on his own, but the bandstand brass, honky-tonk piany (sic) and piercing blues-harp on Disc Two, both lift the bar to maybe a bit higher than 12-bar-blues would probably dictate. The most unrecognizable transformation on Storytone would have to be Say Hello to Chicago. The blustery, back corner of a windy-city dive-bar vibe of Young’s solo piano version has just the right number of blues licks to justify its lyrics, but the big band version is a different animal altogether; It’s noticeably more “Las Vegas” than “Chicago” but the translation seems to work a little better.
Closing with the gorgeously gentle All Those Dreams, the tinny silvertone guitar of the solo version is a beautifully sweet ending to a set of completely unadorned solo work, and the orchestral backing on the second disc is dynamic and perfectly sympathetic to its subtleties. In short, Neil Young puts out maybe one questionable release a decade and this isn’t necessarily it. There are points where you feel like he could’ve saved a lot of time and money on about a third of the tracks and consolidating both versions of each song into a healthy single album, but you’ll forgive him cos… well… it’s Neil Young! Too much of a good thing is definitely more desirable than diminishing returns for someone of such iconic status.