Perhaps this was inevitable. When Neil Young hit the road last year with Promise of the Real, they sprinkled all sorts of rarities into their setlists. When I caught them live, Neil played “Fuckin’ Up” for the first time in a few years; other shows had songs like “Hippie Dream,” or “Vampire Blues” which hadn’t been played live in years, too. I didn’t know it at the time, but they were recording their sets. And now, about a year later, Young’s compiled about 90 minutes of those shows into a sprawling live set, Earth.
Over the years, Young’s always worn his heart on his sleeve, especially on issues he finds important. All the way back in 1970, on After the Gold Rush, he sung about environmental issues, racism in America and his self-doubt. Some songs exploded into guitar fireworks, while others were gentle acoustic numbers drenched in vocal harmonies.
Basically, there’s a template and a history to Young’s music: sometimes he’s a guitar hero, other times a longhaired folkie.
This duality’s in full force on Earth. There are moments where Young sounds every bit the 60s protest singer he started as and there are moments where the band slides into a furious guitar jam. But what this record shows is how the two sides are slowly coming together as Young ages.
It was hinted at on last year’s The Monsanto Years. Most of the songs on Earth are from that record, which makes sense when you consider he spent most of last year touring in support of it. But on The Monsanto Years, the music sounded hesitant and unsure at times. They were all new songs, recorded with a new-to-Young band; the jams didn’t click the same way his Crazy Horse records did and when Young yelled into his microphone, he didn’t seem especially passionate. Yet.
When I caught him live last summer, it was on a big stage at a packed summer festival; there, the songs leaped out off of the stage. Tucked between older Young songs, new material like “Big Box” or “Wolf Moon,” fitted into the back catalogue. At the same time, older songs like “Vampire Blues” or “Love and Only Love” fit just about perfectly into this context, their environmental message meshing nicely with the new songs.
On Earth, the new songs sound better than they did in the studio.
I think it’s because after playing them live, night after night, the band and Young started gelling and getting the hang of each other. Sure, Crazy Horse sounds great with Young but they’ve been playing together for over four decades now; Young’s first show with Promise of the Real was about 18 months ago.
Here, songs like “Big Box” or “People Want To Hear About Love” pulsate with energy, with Young’s shouting and yelling as Promise of the Real slam and thrash behind him. The twin-guitar attack of Lukas and Micah Nelson push Young’s lead guitar into the stratosphere, while the rhythm section of Anthony Logerfo (drums) and Corey McCormick (bass) have a steady, rollicking beat. At it’s best, like on the new song “Seed Justice,“ it’s exciting and engaging, as much as anything Young’s done this decade.
At the same time, there are moments where Earth takes some odd steps.
Probably the most infamous aspect of this record is Young’s inclusion of ambient sounds: animal calls, traffic jams, etc. The idea is admittedly kind of crazy, but on the whole it’s an interesting touch. Sometimes it adds levity – the buzzing bees as Young sings a line about their declining population – and other times provides for a nice transition, like between “Wolf Moon” and “Love and Only Love.” And to be honest, it kind of reminded me of seeing this band play live outdoors.
More intrusive are the overdubbed effects. The backing vocals sound out of place, too sweetened to fit into the loose jamming. Sometimes you can hear the Lucas’ singing in the back and because they’re not pushed way up in the mix, it fits; when the singers are pushed to the front, they sound tacked on.
The selection is also kind of a bummer. Last year’s live sets showed a deep examination of Young’s back pages, as it were. There were extended versions of songs like “Down By the River” or “Words,” and choice cuts from his back catalogue: “Mr. Soul,” “Workin’ Man,” and “Walk On.” None of them appear here – although it can be argued they wouldn’t work thematically.
And the politics of Earth are still troubling.
Between Young’s impassioned rants about the rise of GMOs and crop patents are odd statements which undermine his message. It’s especially apparent on “People Want To Hear About Love.” For example: “It’s funny how squirrels will eat organic, but won’t touch GMOs,” sings Young, shortly before he says they also cause autism (gunna need a citation on that one, Young). There’s also a weird moment where a backing singer takes a shot at Black Lives Matter for reasons I couldn’t figure out; Young didn’t sing that line live or on The Monsanto Years, for what it’s worth.
These problems are mostly kept to this one song, buried on the back end of the two-CD/three-LP set, but it brings down the album’s power: start questioning Young’s more outlandish statements and soon you’re calling the rest of them into question, too.
As a whole, Earth is an interesting set and works as a snapshot of where Young’s mind is probably at these days, rather than as a snapshot of his 2015 tour with Promise of the Real.
Hardcore fans will love it; casual fans won’t really know what to make of it. When it’s at it’s best, it’s an exciting and exhilarating listen; at it’s worst, it sounds preachy and out-of-touch. Thankfully, it’s more the former than the latter. It’s not exactly an aural souvenir of the show I saw – that’ll happen in Archives Vol. 15, to be released in 2045 – but it’ll do the trick until then.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.