If I called Barn the best Neil Young album in more than a decade, would it register as faint praise? We are, after all, talking about a bar set by the inauspicious likes of A Letter Home, Peace Trail, The Visitor, Colorado, and several (!) other albums that came and went in the 2010s without much fanfare. Compared with the recent competition, Barn practically feels like a return to the gold standard of Tonight’s The Night, On The Beach, and Rust Never Sleeps — but only when compared with the recent competition. It’s just good enough to make you wonder: Will he ever get around to making another truly great Neil Young album?
Being a Neil Young fan has always required a taste for roller coasters. Throughout his iconic 50-plus-year career, which dates back to his days in Buffalo Springfield with his musical soulmate Stephen Stills, Neil has willingly (and often thrillingly) steered between tremendous highs and crushing lows. He’s been fantastic and flat, brilliant and boring, insightful and insipid. All the while, he’s put out studio albums — 41 in all, not counting live records or his voluminous archival releases — at a steady clip, even when he hasn’t seemed particularly inspired.
Unfortunately, Neil’s “not particularly inspired” era has gone on for a while now. His output in the ’10s resembled the music he made during the most polarizing decade of his career, the 1980s, when he flitted from genre experiment to genre experiment — synth-pop, old-timey country, rockabilly, beer-commercial blues — both as a way to troll his long-time frenemy David Geffen and, one suspects, to satisfy his insatiable appetite for novelty and stimulation. The past decade has a similar ADHD quality: He put out a screamingly shambolic collection of folk standards (2012’s Americana), another album of covers made with Jack While in an ancient vinyl recording booth (2014’s A Letter Home), an album of tunes with orchestral and big-band arrangements (2014’s Storytone), a concept record about the food-industrial complex (2015’s The Monsanto Years), and a live LP that includes the “backing” of farm animals (2016’s Earth). All of these albums are “interesting” without being especially “good.”
But since this is Neil Young — one of the greatest artists to ever work in rock, full stop — I can’t fully dismiss any of them. Maybe they’ll grow on me. Maybe he’s just ahead of the curve. Maybe in a decade I’ll write a thinkpiece entitled, “We Were All Wrong About The Monsanto Years.” At the moment, however, it’s hard not to compare him to one of his only real surviving contemporaries, Bob Dylan, whose most recent studio album, Rough And Rowdy Ways, was a genuine event in a way no Neil record has been in many years. Dylan has had his own share of roller-coaster moments, to be sure. But in the past 20 years as his songwriting has slowed, he has tended to take his time before putting out new original work, waiting until he’s had a cogent set of songs. Now there’s a concept that apparently hasn’t occurred to Neil.
Whenever I’m confronted with yet another marginal Neil Young album I wonder — god help me — if he could use someone like Rick Rubin to help him focus again on songwriting fundamentals. Remember how he worked with a strong producer, Daniel Lanois, on 2010’s Le Noise, his last significant album? Perhaps he just needs to buckle down?
But then I recoil at the thought. Who wants a “well thought out” Neil Young record? Letting it all hang out is what Neil does. Neil is all instinct. Instinct is his brand. Working though it is his process. But the question is: What in the hell is he working toward?
Coming out of the ’80s, Neil Young recovered his stride by reconnecting with Crazy Horse, his partners in crime and his most reliable muse, commencing a run with 1990’s glorious Ragged Glory that rivals even his hallowed golden era in the ’70s. Lately, he’s drifted back into this familiar (and fertile) safety zone. On 2019’s Colorado, he revived the After The Gold Rush edition of his backing band, re-installing Nils Lofgren. (The previous Crazy Horse LP, 2012’s sprawling and jammy Psychedelic Pill, featured the band’s usual guitarist, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro.) And now Young, a man infamous for quickly changing course, has opted to work again with this lineup for Barn.
Judging by the “behind the scenes” documentary directed by Young’s wife, Daryl Hannah, that accompanies the album, making music with Crazy Horse seems, if nothing else, to be extremely fun. Working out of a gorgeous converted barn dating back to the 1850s perched high in the Rockies — an indulgence that only a gazillionaire hippie rock star could afford — we see Neil and his epically grizzled compatriots wail away under a full moon while surrounded by adorable dogs and ample bottles of cold beer. In the movie’s best scene, Young improvises a song on piano about having “no fucking cold beer” until some cold beer magically materializes via one of his assistants. Being Neil Young, as we all know, is pretty cool.
The movie re-affirms what is already evident from Neil Young’s music: He remains a master of vibe. On his best records (and even many of his weakest), you hear the room as much as the songs. The gregariousness of the sessions bleeds into the communal feel of the sounds. His records are often described as “sloppy,” and rightfully so, but in the sloppiness there’s a sense of genuine life being lived and captured on tape. This feeling of electric liveliness is assisted, of course, by Young’s stunningly well-preserved voice and the peerless rumble of Old Black, the 1953 Gibson Les Paul Goldtop responsible for the gnarliest guitar tone known to man next to Link Wray. Even as Young’s songwriting has wavered, Old Black has never failed him. His guitar playing is always what eases me into appreciating and even enjoying albums in which I can’t recall a single memorable melody or lyric. (Psychedelic Pill, for instance, ranks with my favorite Neil Young albums of the past 20 years simply because many of the songs have guitar solos that go on for at least 10 minutes.)
And so it goes on Barn, in which Neil once again dwells on the central obsessions of his late career. There are songs steeped in nostalgia (“Heading West”), songs about cars (“Change Ain’t Never Gonna”), songs about the dire state of the world sung in the tenor of a cranky Facebook poster (“Human Race”), and songs about how one shouldn’t forget about love (“Don’t Forget Love”). Many of them aren’t great, but they sound pretty good, thanks to Old Black and that high and lonesome whine frozen in amber.
And then there are the two songs that stand out from the pack. The first is “They Might Get Lost,” a punch-drunk shuffle in which Young trades harmonica licks with lines about “waitin’ for the boys to come and get the goods.” It has that brittle Tonight’s The Night feeling, in which Neil seems to be describing some illicit misadventure unfolding in front of him in real time with a band that’s about to keel over from a tequila overdose. The other standout is “Welcome Back,” a glowering slow-motion guitar breakdown imbued with the sinister beauty of “Cortez The Killer,” through which Old Black meanders in an aimless death spiral for what feels like several hours, except you hope it actually goes on for several days.
When I hear these songs, my hope that Neil may one day produce another Ragged Glory or Harvest Moon is renewed. As for Young himself, I wonder if at this point it’s more about process than destination. He makes records because that’s what he does. And he drinks his cold beer and he pets his adorable dogs and he breathes in that high Rocky Mountain air and feels alive. The songs will come when they come. In the meantime, there are worst ways to wait.
Neil Young is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.