Fact: Aside from Bob Dylan, there has never been a performer more full of shit than Neil Young. Take that to heart when contemplating why his new record is called Chrome Dreams II. Where was the first Chrome Dreams? It actually exists. But unless you're a psycho-nerd-completist, like me, you didn't travel three hours from Clarion, Pa., to Lima, Ohio, as a 16-year-old just because a friend told you he saw a copy in the bootleg bin of Purple Frog Records, a store staffed by gray-haired dudes in Rush T-shirts who you walk away from saying, "Man, am I gonna end up like that someday?"
Neil Young WaMu Theater, 800 Occidental Ave. S., www.wamutheater.com. $72–$157. 7:30 p.m. Tues., Oct. 23.
I paid $80 for Chrome Dreams, a CD with 15 songs on it. But these songs were classics like "Powderfinger," "Like a Hurricane," and "Too Far Gone." What I got for my $80 were alternate versions of songs I already had in a different sequential order.
But it wasn't all for naught: The cover art features a photo of a grinning Young circa 1978 putting a quarter in a "Blow Job" machine. As I told my parents when they questioned why I'd "waste" such money, that photo alone is worth at least $60.
The real Chrome Dreams is a legend in Neil Young mythology. He'd intended it as an album of original works, but scrapped the project in the late '70s, choosing instead to sprinkle those songs onto sometimes lesser records over the course of more than a decade. And now that each of the songs from the aborted Chrome Dreams has found its way onto albums like Hawks & Doves, American Stars & Bars, Unplugged, Comes a Time, Freedom, and Rust Never Sleeps, Neil Young is delivering Chrome Dreams II.
If anything, Chrome Dreams II should be called Freedom II, the natural extension of Young's 1989 "comeback" album. Why Freedom? In the late '80s, Young began digging through his archives for a 10-disc project to be called Archives. But something happened when he listened to his old stuff. After genre-hopping through the '80s, releasing albums comprised of synth-pop, conservative country, rockabilly, and big-band blues, he felt a spark again. Young scrapped the Archives project and made Freedom. It contained, among other tracks, "Rockin' in the Free World," his first classic since 1978's "Hey Hey, My My." Freedom was a fantastic album, and marked the beginning of Young's most fertile period since the mid-'70s.
In 1995, Young's longtime producer, David Briggs, died, so Young called in Crazy Horse to make a semi–tribute album, Broken Arrow. Since then, Young has spent the past 10 years putting out some really strange shit. There was Silver & Gold, an overrated album that some brownnosed critics inexplicably ranked among Harvest and Harvest Moon. After Silver & Gold came his post-9/11 blues-pop effort, Are You Passionate, and his rock 'n' roll musical, Greendale. (Personally, I loved both, but the records were pretty inaccessible for all but the most die-hard Young fanatics.) And then there was Prairie Wind, which turned out to be Silver & Gold Lite; it received press raves mostly because of its backstory: Young suffered a brain aneurysm and made the album as part of his recovery process.
But then, last year, trickles of the long-awaited Archives project began to resurface. First, Young released the mind-blowing 1970 Crazy Horse show from the Fillmore East in New York, followed by his sublime 1971 solo gig from Massey Hall in Toronto. And now, Young offers his 33rd album of new material, Chrome Dreams II. Much like on Freedom, he is backed by one member from each of his important backing bands: Crazy Horse (drummer Ralph Molina), the Bluenotes (bassist Rick Rosas), and the Stray Gators (steel guitarist Ben Keith).
Chrome Dreams II is easily the best record Young has released in more than a decade. It kicks off with studio versions of a trio of songs that date back 20-some years. "Bluebird" is a country-folk number about how the blue in his wife's eyes is as lovely as a bird he saw while driving around his ranch, while "Boxcar" is a banjo-and-electric-guitar song akin to "Southern Pacific" from Young's 1980s album Re-ac-tor. "Ordinary People" is stretched out to 18 minutes here, verse piled upon verse. It's one of Young's wordiest songs, with loopy visions of drug lords, hot rods, prizefighters, aged fashion models, and homeless factory workers.
Prairie Wind suggested Neil had come close to God in his post–brain surgery years, and the seven new tracks on Chrome Dreams II do nothing to refute that. On "Shining Light" and "Ever After," he manages to let his electric strumming walk through a song that crosses into country waltz, '50s pop, and gospel territory. But there are no less than three more epic rockers on the record, "Spirit Road," a boot-stomping hurricane of electric fury, the finest among them. Next comes "Dirty Old Man," an awesomely crappy romp that shares a special place in Young's catalog with "Farmer John," "T-Bone," and "Piece of Crap" as beloved throwaway tracks. And just when you'd think old Neil is all rocked out, he rips into "No Hidden Path," a two-note riff-fest that finds Young twisting, mangling, caressing, and strangling his guitar for 13 minutes with few lyrics.
In the past, Young has said he has to keep moving forward with his music, and can't be caught up in his own history. This logic has kept him from becoming a nostalgia act. Yet it seems that dipping into his archives has proved to be a creative windfall for Young. Given this track record, Chrome Dreams II might just mark the beginning of another peak period for one of the industry's great bullshit artists. If so, we should once again give up hope of seeing the Archives box set anytime soon.