Neil Young has released at least a half-dozen archival live albums in the past decade, but he hasn’t released a “new” live album, documenting a current tour, since 2000’s Road Rock: Friends and Relatives. That alone makes his newest album, Earth, somewhat special within the classic rocker’s vast discography. But Young has ensured that Earth stands out in other ways. He decided to take the live recordings, which feature backing band Promise of the Real (a group that includes Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah), and augment them with other sounds. Some of the overdubs are pretty conventional, like a slightly dissonant back-up choir, but most of them are left-field nature sounds that Young reportedly recorded in his own backyard.
This choice fits with the often activist tone of the album, which features a baker’s dozen worth of tunes that span Young’s career and highlight his pro-environment and anti-corporate-farming stances. The rationale appears to be: if you’re gonna sing about nature, why not feature the real stuff on the album as well?
As a casual fan often intrigued by Young’s weird experiments (his widely derided, synth-heavy ’80s album Trans is a personal fave), I think the nature noise is effective and evocative more often than you might expect — but it definitely doesn’t work all of the time. Subtlety would seem to be the key to make this work, but we’re talking about a guy who named his recent concept album about farmers The Monsanto Years, so subtlety is not always on the table. The crickets and frogs that typically segue between songs, evoking a night out under the stars, are great. Even the slightly goofy hoots and clucks and neighs tossed in with the post-song applause are silly fun. The problem is when Young attempts use a swarm of bees as a musical/rhythmic element on the previously unreleased tune “Seed Justice.” It sounds like a novelty record, but I suspect Young doesn’t want us to laugh.
Apart from the animals, Earth is a solid set of songs. “After the Gold Rush” from 1970 is the only tune here that Greatest Hits listeners will recognize, and Young somehow preserves the tune’s gentle ache and immediacy as though he wrote it yesterday. And speaking of those tunes he did write yesterday: “Wolf Moon” is another gorgeous ballad steeped in melancholy over the disappearing natural world, while “The Monsanto Years” (despite that cringeworthy title) features a welcoming, loping beat and one of Young’s catchiest melodies. The other new tunes, “Big Box” and “People Want to Hear About Love,” arguably sound tighter and meaner in their studio iterations, which helped to better mitigate the hamfisted anti-corporate rhetoric of Young’s lyrics. (I don’t fault Young for his convictions, but he is hit-or-miss at transforming those convictions into poetry you’d actually want to hear someone sing.)
Other highlights in the set: Landing on Water‘s “Hippie Dream” becomes menacingly heavy in the hands of Promise of the Real; “Vampire Blues” from On the Beach pleasantly shuffles and boogies while Young and (I’m assuming) Lukas Nelson trade crunchy, sloppy guitar solos and the backup singers intone, “Chevron, Chevron;” and everything closes out with an experimentally meandering version of Ragged Glory‘s “Love and Only Love” that clocks in at 28 minutes when all is said and done.
Neil Young may have envisioned Earth as an “experience,” rather than a live document, but the album works because of the quality of its material rather than the cleverness of its gimmick.
Earth arrives on select digital platforms and as a 2-CD set on Friday, June 24.
A 3-LP vinyl version will be released on Friday, August 12.
Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.