In Conan O'Brien's eyes, Neil Young has done the impossible.
"He's managed to stay completely authentic and raw in a way that almost seems impossible to me," O'Brien told Howard Stern last year. "What he was doing with Buffalo Springfield in , he's still going for that. He hasn't calcified. He hasn't crusted over. He's still going for that. So that guy blows me away.”
It's not the first time Young has blown O'Brien's mind. When the two sat down for an interview a few years ago, the comedian expressed his admiration for Young's ability to "not give a s—." To which Young replied, "If somebody doesn't like something, that's just as exciting as them liking it." O'Brien's response? "My head just came off."
Such are the twin halves of the two-time GRAMMY winner's artistic journey in his 70s: indomitable will and an almost supernatural ability to brush off criticism.
Powered by undiluted passion, moral will-to-power and an unscratchable creative itch, Young is always hurtling forward, prioritizing honesty and raw feeling over all else. ("There's a lot of people who do like it, and they'll like it even more if you didn't guard the edges," Young told O'Brien in the same interview — cogent advice for every creative person in the self-censoring 2020s.)
Key figures in Young's life and career — like filmmaker Larry L.A. Johnson, pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, former wife Pegi Young, and manager Elliot Roberts — have passed away in the last decade and change; in decades past, he lost producer David Briggs and Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, among so many others. These losses haven't thrown Young off the rails, but seemingly added momentum to his runaway creative train.
This alchemy — his innate ability to process trauma, negativity and loss into quantum motivation — popped up in 2019, when an anonymous fan wrote a letter to Young's quirky online newspaper, the Times-Contrarian. The fan talked about their "Uncle Eddie," concerned that the ailing 76-year-old won't live to hear all of the archival music Young promised he has in the can.
"He wants to know why you don't just put all this material out now. Just dump it all out on the NYA website," they entreated. "He wants you to know that he can't buy it if he's dead." Young sprang into action, and there's now a plethora of lost recordings out there — Homegrown, Summer Songs, Toast — with an untold ocean of music to come.
Amid the archival deluge, Young's latest decade-plus of music making has been one of the most satisfying epochs of his long career — his lyrical messages heartfelt and probing, his production raw and wooly, his electric guitar playing more twisted and brain-bending than ever.
These components of his current run are fully on display in the documentary Barn — which captures the recording process for 2021's Barn — for Best Music Film at the 2023 GRAMMYs. From that rustic jumping-off point, here's a rundown of each album, from a logical entrypoint: his first LP with Crazy Horse in 16 years.
(with Crazy Horse)
Young has long had a preoccupation with the taxonomy of song.
He tends to revisit unreleased songs — and albums — from decades ago. Diehards have murmured for years about an abandoned '70s album of songs named after well-known hits. (One contender, "Born to Run," recently emerged — it's not Springsteen's.)
Young took this to an extreme with Americana, his and the Horse's album of public-domain schoolyard bops like "Oh Susannah," "Clementine" and "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain."
Although it may be tempting to pigeonhole it as a mere on-ramp to the masterpiece that followed it, Americana aged well. The melodic swoops on "Clementine," the goofy R&B cover "Get a Job," and the barreling momentum of "Travel On" are alone worth the price of admission.
Plus, winking renditions of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land" and British royal anthem "God Save the Queen" break the fourth wall, in a sense. Young isn't merely dealing in schoolyard chants, but wry commentary on what being American truly means.
Psychedelic Pill (2012)
(with Crazy Horse)
What's the greatest album Young ever made with Crazy Horse? It's logical to jump out for the first one they ever did together, 1969's Everyone Knows This is Nowhere. But it lacks the raw, wooly production everyone associates with this collaboration.
There's a case to be made for 1975's Zuma, but that discourse tends to hang on a single song: "Cortez the Killer." Same for 1979's Rust Never Sleeps, but its nature — live recordings supplemented with overdubs — muddies the waters.
Obviously, there's no objective answer. But 10 years later, it's time to introduce Psychedelic Pill into the debate. This is the Horse, unfiltered and unadulterated — and guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro's final ride with the band.
This was the year Young released his bloggy, discursive autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, and Psychedelic Pill's 27-minute(!) opening track, "Driftin' Back" reflects that in more ways than one. It's not just that he references "writing [in] his book"; over its hypnotic, chord-looping runtime, Young muses about crummy bitrates, potential paganism and his pending hip-hop hairdo.
All-time performances by the Horse roll on, married to terrific songs.
"Ramada Inn" is a pathos-laden character study of a moldering, alcoholic marriage; '80s salvage "For the Love of Man" touchingly resonates with Young's experience of raising two sons with physical disabilities; and "Walk Like a Giant" explodes Tonight's the Night's post-'60s cynicism to Godzilla proportions, complete with speaker-rattling amplifier crashes at the end.
With all genuflection to the old Horse, the band demonstrably reached peak potency in the 21st century. Kick back with something strong and meander down this twisted road.
A Letter Home (2014)
Young recorded A Letter Home in Jack White's Voice-o-Graph vinyl recording booth, where a signal is translated directly into vinyl, to primitive-sounding results. It's all covers.
While classics like Bob Dylan's "Girl from the North Country," Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and Tim Hardin's "Reason to Believe" are certainly luminous, the most emotionally heart-stopping moment comes at the very beginning, when Young dictates a message to his mother in heaven.
"Hi mom! Hey, it's great to be able to talk to you," Young exclaims through moon-landing-grade audio. I haven't been able to talk to you in a really long time, and my friend Jack has got this box that I can talk to you from."
"So, I'd like to be able to send you this message and tell you how much I love you and also tell you that I think you should start talking to Daddy again," he continues. "Since you're both there together, there's no reason not to talk.”
Young rambles on to his mom about "weatherman" Al Gore from there, but it's the following track that hits the solar plexus. He then covers Phil Ochs' "Changes," which should resonate with anyone who's lost a parent. In this damaged and warped presentation, it's almost unbearably moving to hear.
"Your tears will be trembling, now we're somewhere else/ One last cup of wine we will pour," Young croons through brambles of distortion, seemingly reporting from another plane of existence. "And I'll kiss you one more time, and leave you on the rolling river shores of changes."
The rest of this unconventional covers album rolls on; whether you can roll with the "production" for its entire runtime comes down to the ears of the beholder. But that intro, leading into "Changes," comprises the beating heart of A Letter Home.
There's much more than technological gimmickry at play. Through the lens of "Changes," the fuzz is a metaphor for distance and loss.
Young followed A Letter Home with its polar opposite, fidelity-speaking: Storytone, where every one of its earnest tracks was augmented with an orchestra or big band.
This maximalism should be no surprise to the Young-initiated; his orchestra-abetted tracks, like "A Man Needs a Maid" and "Such a Woman," are proof positive of such.
That said, no Young album has felt quite this Hollywood; even as the gorgeous "Plastic Flowers" recalls the classic "After the Gold Rush" with its yearning melody, the string embellishments take center stage. Ditto the romping big band on "I Want to Drive My Car," which pushes the simple, bluesy composition into deep Vegas territory.
Upon its release, Young seemed fascinated by how he could pull Storytone in different directions. Not only did he release the embellished and unembellished versions; we have Mixed Pages of Storytone, which shuffles the tracklist and offers a bit of both.
Whatever your Storytone is, the songs are cozy and livable — and reflect the dawn of a new love. (The singer began dating his now-wife, actress and filmmaker Daryl Hannah, that year.)
The Monsanto Years (2015)
(with Promise of the Real)
Young has a long track record of being shaken to his core by a cause, writing in haste and rushing into the studio.
He did it back in 1970 with Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Ohio," their outrage bomb about the Kent State shootings. And he did it in 2006 with the raw and immediate Living With War, which takes shots at Dubya and the war machine.
This time, agrochemical and agricultural biotech company Monsanto is in the crosshairs, and Young's got new aural weaponry: Promise of the Real, a band helmed by Willie Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah, who actually named themselves after Young's song "Walk On."
Whatever your feelings on the company are — last year, they pled guilty to 30 environmental crimes — these songs about corporate avarice and food transparency ring true.
And tunes like "People Want to Hear About Love," "Workin' Man" and "Rules of Change" capture the fire of Psychedelic Pill. "No one owns the sacred seed/ No man's law can change that," Young seethes in the latter song, cutting to the heart of the matter.
Peace Trail (2016)
Despite its stripped-down presentation — Young, bassist Paul Bushnell and drummer Jim Keltner — Peace Trail might be one of Young's most avant-garde albums. In a great way.
Instead of landing somewhere near 2000's rootsy (and vastly underrated) Silver and Gold, Peace Trail feels nervy and unpolished, like the trio is recording it in first takes in your garage. (The scrawled album cover adds to the effect.)
The songs are some of Young's strongest of his current run; "Can't Stop Workin'" is an ode to imaginary-gun-to-your-head prolificity that would make Robert Pollard proud, and the smoldering "Show Me" recalls 1994's nocturnal Sleeps With Angels.
All the while, Bushnell leans back; Keltner often does the opposite. He doesn't merely keep time; he responds to Young's lines like Rashied Ali to John Coltrane on Interstellar Space.
Throw in some Auto-Tune, computer chatter and possible references to Amazon's Alexa, and you've got a wonderfully strange entry in Young's recent oeuvre.
Often, the worn and craggy Peace Trail — in all its sonic imperfections and needling political commentary — amounts to Young's private war against the dehumanizing technocratic age.
The Visitor (2017)
(with Promise of the Real)
In 2017, Young beamed us back to 1976 with the long-lost archival album, Hitchhiker. Under a full moon in the late summer, a crossfaded Young sits alone in a Malibu studio, with David Briggs at the helm, and cuts a slew of future classics: "Pocahontas," "Powderfinger," "Campaigner." It's luminous.
Three months later, Young slammed his fans back into Trump-dominated, Twitter-poisoned reality with The Visitor, his second studio turn with Promise of the Real. The tunes deal with the nature of American-ness ("Already Great") and the rising of the young generation ("Children of Destiny").
When you get past the era-specific topicality, though, there's much to explore. "Almost Always" does mention a certain "game show host," its revisitation of the riff to his '90s tune "Unknown Legend" suggests there was more emotional terrain to trawl there.
Plus, there's no precedent in his vast catalog for something like "Carnival," a Tom Waits-level-bizarre excursion that rolls past the eight-minute mark. And the slow sunset of closing track "Forever" shows that Young still excels in the long form; his knack for hypnosis hasn't left him.
(with Crazy Horse)
In 2018, old compatriot Nils Lofgren replaced guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampredo in Crazy Horse; he had appeared on old classics like After the Gold Rush and Tonight's the Night, so he was the logical choice. His first outing as a proper Horseman was the following year's Colorado, recorded at 9,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains — as captured touchingly and hysterically in the documentary Mountaintop.
Read More: Living Legends: Nils Lofgren On His Guitar Philosophy, Staying Sober & Meshing With Iconoclasts Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young
At this point, Young's ecological concerns became even more of a focal point in his writing. But while a lesser writer would hector and lecture, Young is crucially able to turn this topic in the light and capture new facets every time.
"She Showed Me Love" frames this issue as a matter of betrayal; Mother Nature gave Young everything he has. "I saw old white guys trying to kill mother nature!" he reports in the stormy rocker; his anger spirals into the transfixing, endlessly repeating coda, where the Horse enter one of their trademark reveries.
While "Shut it Down" is like shattered glass against a wall, Colorado is, on the main, one of the Horse's gentler offerings. "Green is Blue," "Milky Way" and "I Do" are some of his most subtle and simmering songs in years.
But the arguable centerpiece is "Olden Days," for completely different reasons. It doesn't mention climate collapse at all; rather, it's about the people Young has loved and lost to death. "Something happened yesterday/ I need to talk to you," he sings in his fragile falsetto, seemingly singing to any and all of his late friends and colleagues.
And even though it's from the perspective of another character, it's bracing to hear the artist who arguably cares more than any other, singing these three resigned words: "Nothing matters anyway."
(with Crazy Horse)
Young used to walk away from the Horse for years between albums; now, we're on a roll, one that seems to continue unabated. Just as Colorado was recorded in Colorado, Barn was made in a barn; it's another case of Young's experimentation with location-specific vibes.
Within those century-old timber walls, Young sings of humanity making it work during challenging times — the "children of the fires and floods" navigating a global pandemic and a half-dozen other calamities.
"Masked people walking everywhere," he notes in "Song of the Seasons," accompanied by Lofgren's rustic accordion. "It's humanity in my sights." Performances of all these songs and behind-the-scenes footage appear in the documentary of the same name, which is nominated for Best Music Film at the 2023 GRAMMYs.
Elsewhere, Young addresses his recent American citizenship ("Canerican"), turns in another winning example of his noir-ish slow burners ("They Might Be Lost") and stretches out on the chills-inducing, eight-minute "Welcome Back."
Fans of the Horse at their most extreme might bemoan the quick runtimes; most of the tunes are four-and-a-half minutes or shorter. But Barn shows they excel in this economical setting. Best of all, they've proven to remain a potent force for good in a battered world.
World Record (2022)
(with Crazy Horse)
Three Horse albums in about as many years — there's no precedent for this.
Produced by Rick Rubin and recorded live in the studio, the production puts you right there on the studio floor; the interstitial chatter and noodlings weren't cut, but preserved.
Darker and more hymnal than Barn, World Record carries a tint of desperation, often throwing poetry aside in favor of ultra-direct pleas for reconciliation. In "The World (Is In Trouble Now)," Young grinds out the title chorus over gnarled knots of accordion. "No more war/ Only love," he and his accompanists keen in "Walkin' on the Road (To the Future)."
Fans who wished for longer songs than on Barn might have to wait a little longer; these runtimes are tight too. But the majestic, 15-minute workout "Chevrolet" should assuage any concerns.
Plus, the other tracks show Young's way with a haunting melody remains undimmed; the halting, ascendant bridge to "Overhead" and companionable chorus to "This Old Planet (Changing Days)" are unforgettable.
Wherever these changing days ultimately lead us — to reclamation or disaster — let it be known that a 77-year-old Young has been a warning bell, a balm and a light in the universe.
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