Neil Young | Return to Greendale | (Reprise)
Four out of Five Stars
Despite his reputation as a veritable musical chameleon, Neil Young has always been at his most consistent in concert. It’s there that he’s found the means to interpret his recorded work in ways that manage to extract the honesty and insurgency that’s always been so essential to the ongoing efforts he’s spawned for well over the past half century. So while a revisit to his ambitious Greendale soundtrack album might seem something of an afterthought nearly 20 years later, it’s well in tune with the other archival albums he’s released in a decidedly steady stream of late. Indeed, Return to Greendale reaffirms the fact that this often overlooked project was not only significant then, but even more so now.
Prescient in terms of its themes and overall narrative, the original Greenville unfolded in the form of a rural rock opera about the everyday lives of the Green family in a fictional California town. Even so, the songs found deeper meaning though themes that touched on corruption, capitalism, the media, hometown values, and the pillaging of the environment by those who would plunder it for their own selfish gain. Replayed here in a performance from the 2003 tour in support of the original album, Young and his ever-faithful backing band Crazy Horse perform ten songs from the original album in their original sequence, invoking emotion and intent with their usual energy and unabashed determination. It’s a blistering performance in all its ragged, rugged glory, one that manages to encapsulate the best of Young’s stylistic stance, one that effectively integrates tenacity with tenderness, outrage with exhilaration.
Ultimately then, here in this regal revision, the emotional impact becomes that much more consequential. When Young drawls in a half-spoken monotone, “Someday you’ll find what you’re looking for,” the stark sobriety clearly comes to the surface. Likewise, when he evokes the so-called Summer of Love in “Double E,” it becomes clear that the optimism of that distant era has faded from view once and for all. So too, the earnest intent expressed in opening track “Falling From Above” quickly becomes submerged by the darker designs of the songs that follow.
That’s not to say that Young’s determination falters at any point along the way. Songs such as “Grandpa’s Interview,” “Carmichael,”“Leave the Driving”and the sinister “Sun Green” are steady and assured, each a visceral reflection of exhortation and insistence. Each is yet another example of that aforementioned potent combination that Young and Crazy Horse have always accrued in concert.
As a result, Return to Greendale serves several purposes. For one, it’s an excellent live document, and though it’s devoid of otherwise familiar material, it brings attention to an unlikely artifact that deserves renewed attention. Consider this a most remarkable return.