Neil Young : Chrome Dreams

Neil Young Chrome Dreams review

A college roommate of mine once tabled extemporaneously a theory object that has stuck with me for almost two decades now: “Jay-Z bad.” This object, “Jay-Z bad,” is the unique trait of works of art that, in any other context, would never be considered bad, named after the reception of The Blueprint 2 in its original double-disc format. Jay, at the top of his game, decided to release nearly two hours worth of rap on a single record, a feat of bravado that honestly seemed warranted at the time, given that the previous five-album run of his from his debut Reasonable Doubt to 2001’s The Blueprint is still considered one of the very greatest the genre ever produced. By all measures, The Blueprint 2 was a solid and worthwhile followup, not as great as its predecessor but still jam packed with excellent beats and brilliant bars, with a looseness naturally occurring in its size that let us peek behind the curtain for the first time since his cipher days at the process and wealth of rap knowledge in Jay’s head. It was also, notably, considered a bad record at the time. Had anyone else put out The Blueprint 2 it would have been received, at the worst, as a deeply promising record, but for Jay, who’d been notching on his belt literally some of the very greatest rap records of all time, this was almost disgraceful.

Neil Young is a historical figure that would fall under this rubric. There are, in my estimation, no bad Neil Young records, only records which you don’t understand yet. This seems from the outside more like a theological sentiment than a critical one and, truth be told, I wouldn’t strongly disagree with that. It’s important, however, to retain an image of the holy in art, to marry the critical eye with the adorant’s spirit. But, while there are no bad Neil Young records in my book, there certainly are “Jay-Z bad” records from the man. His track record among those less religiously devoted to the man’s output is… let’s call it spotty, to be polite, if routinely streaked with brilliance. The man has released nearly 50 studio LPs across numerous backing bands and projects; he has likewise abandoned several along the way, the pieces crumbling in his hands with songs finding new arrangements on later records. We are now, however, in a curious period of the man’s career, as he approaches the end, releasing these long-bootlegged lost albums and reconstructing them piecemeal whenever he can’t. There’s always that terror, though: Will this long-sought treasure be another brilliant record or, um, “Jay-Z bad”?

Chrome Dreams is the former.

Its status as a truly great Neil record would be assured on the grounds of its startlingly brilliant performance of “Like A Hurricane” alone, a lo-fi psychedelic folk-rock cut that almost any beloved indie rock band of the next 45 years since its originally recording would have given their left arm for. There are country-folk cuts like “Pocahontas” and “Star of Bethlehem,” prefiguring players like Phoebe Bridgers well over a decade before they’d even be born. These songs are in turns ethereal, cloud-like, summoning the same pastoral sense of earlier masterpieces like Harvest or the impossibly brilliant Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, before then summoning the grit of early Crazy Horse and the scattered studio tricks giving a near-Beach Boys sense of depth of sonic field. By this point in 1977, the year the album was approaching its completion before breaking apart like a rocket in the sky, Neil knew what he could at his absolute best and was beginning to show signs of the hunger that would drive the hyper-experimentalism of the ’80s for him. Chrome Dreams, presumably crafted initially as a return to older styles for him, ironically sees him trapped between these tides. He seems pathologically incapable of producing material without worth; every friction is fruitful.

If this reads like hagiography, well, it is. This shouldn’t be a surprise though; this album has been in the bootleg circuit in more or less the shape it appears here in its official release for years and years, was already long-vetted as an absolute classic of the discography and often the first record you’d be pointed to in bootleg spaces if you wanted to dig into Neil Young esoterica. The clean-up job here loses some of the charm of the nastiness and sense of taboo thrill that the bootlegs possessed but gains a sense of being a real album, feeling more like a remaster of a record you forgot about than a shelved vault record. Restoring this element of Young’s legacy is just another of the brilliant moves he’s been making for the past decade cementing and archiving his legacy for future generations. Throw this on and learn where every, and I do mean every, indie artist worth a shit took notes from. It’s worth your time.

Label: Reprise

Year: 2023

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