Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Let’s review the prolific and somewhat bizarre past three years of Neil Young’s recording career, shall we? There was a Crazy Horse-accompanied ride through some classic American folk songs (Americana). Crazy Horse then came back for a speaker-shredding collection of elongated electric guitar freakouts (Psychedelic Pill.) And earlier this year, Young cut a set of favorite covers in an old-timey recording booth that made him sound like he was being beamed in from Saturn (A Letter Home). Would it really surprise anyone at this point if his next record was CSNY Part II, this time recorded with Phil Collins,Taylor Swift, and Nas?
Young’s latest, Storytone, has a gimmick of sorts attached to it as well, but the good news is that this gimmick forces him to flex his considerable songwriting muscle. The legend plays no instruments on the album, instead channeling his inner Sinatra to croon ten original songs with orchestral or big band accompaniment. Michael Bearden and Chris Walden are the co-producers and co-arrangers who worked up the strings and horns, while Young rises to the occasion with a set of compositions that deserve the lush backdrop.
Often overlooked amidst Young’s different genre forays is his skill as a tunesmith. Storytone features some of his most ingratiating melodies in years, songs that don’t even need the orchestration to reveal their beauty. (The acoustic version of the album sans the strings proves this.) Opening track “Plastic Flowers” recalls “After The Gold Rush” with both its dreamy tune and lyrics that meld the personal and the cosmic, while love ballads like “When I Watch You Sleeping” and “I’m Glad I Found You” unabashedly go for the heart bone.
Bearden and Walden pull off their tasks well by utilizing the fancy instrumentation to embellish the intimacy of Young’s songs. The strings seem to lengthen the horizon on the lullaby “Tumbleweed,” while they make Young sound vulnerable and small on “When I Watch You Sleeping,” which is in keeping with the humility shown in the lyrics. Rarely do the arrangements get showy, with the possible exception of the one for the environmental plea “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” On that track the score seems to come rumbling forth from the distance like the fast-approaching calamity that Young foretells if the proper vigilance isn’t practiced.
The big band numbers don’t quite get the job done. The bite in lines like “I got my problems/But they mostly show up with you” is mitigated by the brassy fanfare on “Like You Used To.” Only three of the ten songs fall into this category though, so they don’t overshadow the more affecting slow stuff. Many of those songs deal with the upheaval that comes with transitioning from a longtime partner to a new love. (Young recently split from longtime wife Pegi.)
Young sings these songs with grace and tenderness, sounding like a guy who’s still licking his wounds yet summoning the courage to hope again. On the standout “While I Watch You Sleeping”, Young paraphrases Bobby and Smokey when he sings, “Today I paint my masterpiece/Tonight I trace my tears.” The songs on Storytone glide between those highs and lows with very few false moves, making this one stylistic detour that takes Neil Young very close to his artistic home.