'Ick' was my initial reaction to 'Oh Susannah', the first song on Americana and the first song from the album released with an accompanying video on YouTube. I thought Oh Susannah sounded clunky, and that Neil's voice had gotten so creaky and snarly that it verged on being ugly. But the video was kind of intriguing, especially that dancing, smoking kid. I watched and listened to it again a couple of days later and found myself liking the way the song begins, sort of like an old diesel tractor sputtering and wheezing when it's first started, then all the parts of the motor get in synch and the next thing you know you've got a chugging locomotive barreling down the track. A few more listens and I'm finding myself humming Oh Susannah as I'm walking my dog or doing the dishes and, before I know it, I'm on board.
The same thing happened when he released 'Clementine.' Initially I thought some parts of the song were okay, but cringed whenever Neil would go into the chorus wailing like a rusty old saw blade. But I listened to it a couple more times. Now when Neil howls out Clem-men-ti-i-i-i-ne, I'm right there howling along with him.
By the time I had listened to 'Jesus Chariot' (She'll be Coming Around the Mountains) three or four times--I especially like how, in the accompanying retro the ballroom dancers seem to jump to the rhythm of Crazy Horse--the Neil Young & Crazy Horse undertow had sucked me right in.
Americana is not about polishing and varnishing some old campfire chestnuts. Others (Bruce Springsteen?) have done a better job of reworking the folk tunes. Neil Young has simply taken the shadows of these old songs and transformed them into genuine Neil Young & Crazy Horse stomps. I have a friend who's in his mid 20's and not very familiar with Neil Young. I had him listen to this album a couple times and he was really surprised when I told him afterwards that these songs are based on old folk tunes. He said that they somehow sounded familiar but he couldn't place them, even though he knew many of the original songs.
This is not a good Neil Young album. But this is a great Neil Young & Crazy Horse album. Truthfully, I haven't really been able to get into any Neil Young album since Greendale (although megaphones do not music make), or maybe even the underrated Broken Arrow with its strikingly similar cover art to Americana. Americana works for me because of Crazy Horse who, in my opinion, are Neil's best backup band ever. Crazy Horse always seem to set Neil on the warpath and makes me think of how the original Crazy Horse's people might have sounded romping and stomping up a storm around a bonfire if they had drums, guitars, and an electric bass.
I especially like the way Crazy Horse back up Neil in 'Tom Dula'. I'm not sure who's singing the background vocals (Billy Talbot?), but whoever it is, he's really singing his heart out as hard as Neil is. The whole band is playing as if this is their last chance to prove to the world that they've got the real thing.
And speaking of heart, this is what Americana is truly about. It's about raw, pure, beautiful and untarnished emotion. Yes it creaks and snarls and sputters, but it's also powerful and inspiring. It's not the 'Twenty-four and so much more' Neil Young of forty years ago, but Neil Young in his sixties still going out in his blaze of glory.
I bought the album and have listened to it now in my truck, on my iPod, and through my vintage stereo at least half a dozen times. It turns out that the album is great for running or working out to and even better for listening to while driving down the road. As a bonus, I already know most of the words so it's easy to sing along to. Even my wife, who hasn't liked anything by Neil Young since Rust Never Sleeps, is spending a lot of time with this album. We both hope that when he comes to Canada, Neil gives us the Canadian version of "This Land is My Land." What a sing-along that would be!
I do have a question, however. I've searched high and low, but I have no idea what the portals are in the line 'She'll take us to the portals' in Jesus' Chariot. It sounds like something almost mystical. I even think I want to go to those portals. But I also have a feeling that maybe Neil Young & Crazy Horse have already transported me there with this powerful, inspiring, and soul-rousing new album.