There was a collective sigh of disappointment among die-hard fans when the upcoming release of this disc was first announced. After all, late last year, Young made it official — the first in his long-awaited, multidisc Archives box-set series, this one covering 1963-'72, would finally be released in 2007. Fans were even directed to a Website to check out snippets from the promised DVD, which included such treasures as vintage footage of the Buffalo Springfield on The Hollywood Palace TV variety show and even a young Neil teaching a fan the proper way to play "Cinnamon Girl" on acoustic guitar in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. To say there was a collective exclamation of "Wow!" among die-hards at the time would be an understatement.
So it appeared that Chrome Dreams II might be nothing more than a holding pattern, disappointing since fans have been waiting for Archives (originally titled Decade II) several decades longer than Guns N' Roses fans have been awaiting Chinese Democracy. The disappointment was premature, however, because Chrome Dreams II (the title references another Young project called Chrome Dreams, shelved in 1976) is perhaps his most satisfying collection of songs since 1990's Ragged Glory.
The disc is a hodgepodge of Young styles. He even employs a hodgepodge of musicians from various phases of his career to form his present band, reviving several long-shelved songs here, in addition to new material, all of which Young has described as "focusing on the human condition." The lovely "Beautiful Bluebird," which kicks off the disc, sounds not unlike "Out On the Weekend" (never a bad thing) and could be an outtake from Harvest. Ditto the banjo-heavy "Boxcar." The gorgeous "Shining Light" creates a new tune by appropriating the melodies from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Memory" and Bobby Vinton's "Mr. Lonely" (!) — something probably not at all lost on the man who "borrowed" a Stones melody to create "Borrowed Tune" on Tonight's the Night. And the closing "The Way" uses only a piano and a children's chorus to deliver a stark but moving message of hope.
But those who love the rockin' wild 'n' crazy 'n' loud Neil (hello!) won't be disappointed. "Dirty Old Man" is a punk-ish throwaway — not quite "Welfare Mothers" but not bad either. The three centerpieces here, however, are the rollicking "Spirit Road," the 14-and-a-half minute "No Hidden Path," and (especially) the 18 minute-plus "Ordinary People." The latter tune, also long-shelved, has reached almost mythic proportions among Young cultists, and this version doesn't disappoint. Driven by Young's hard rockin', Phenobarbital-like riffs and a horn section, it sets up various scenarios populated by vivid characters, all slices of modern American life. It's almost like a novel set to music, reminding the listener that, sadly, almost no one writes songs as powerful as this anymore.
If Chrome Dreams II is indeed a holding pattern, it still reinforces the vitality of one of our greatest musical treasures. It's certainly one of 2007's finest releases. (Now, where's that damn box set?)
Neil Young plays the Fox Theatre, 2211 Woodward Ave., on Saturday, Nov. 10.
Bill Holdship is the music editor of Metro Times Send comments to [email protected].