Over 40 years in the music business has led Neil Young to some joyful, odd, troublesome and strange times. After all, how many people can claim to have won an MTV award for a music video that never actually aired on that station? Between Buffalo Springfield and Bridge School, albums of quiet peace and ones of feedback, from being one of four folk singers to being regarded as the singular godfather of grunge. All of this and much more make up an astounding talent and one of the legends of the industry. In April of this year, Neil Young fans everywhere were saddened to hear about a brain aneurysm that the artist suffered. Reminiscent of the back troubles and surgeries that Young went through during the making of Harvest, Young’s latest effort, Prairie Wind was written while on the mend from that life threatening scare. Can facing one’s own mortality lead to one’s best work? Harvest provided us with an exhibit A, and Prairie Wind is exhibit B, the damning piece of evidence that provides a definitive yes to that question.
Young doesn’t just reprise (no pun intended) the inner journey of the soul captured in simple, yet profound lyrics, but he also makes a return to the gentle country sounds found in some of his legendary early solo work. Pianist Spooner Oldham and, legend in her own right, vocalist Emmylou Harris both lend their talents to Prairie Wind, giving it even more of that sweet country credential. Acoustic guitar and Ben Keith’s pedal steel abound throughout the album, perfectly complementing Young’s signature vocal style, maybe not universally appreciated, but always recognizable. However, when lowering from his usual falsetto, he can tend to sound a tad like Garrison Keillor, as in “Falling Off the Face of the Earth.”
“No wonder we’re losin’ time,” “Feel like I’m falling off the face of the earth,” references to winter winds, times gone by and other such lyrics call to mind the inevitable, the fact that we might not be able to stop for death, but he’ll always stop for us (thanks, Emily). Maybe Prairie Wind isn’t as funereal as The Man Comes Around, nor as full of regret as September of My Years, but it does resonate with the personal, political and powerful thoughts of a Canadian icon. Yes, the political is still here with “When God Made Me,” an indictment of the Christian right.
Neil Young has had some missteps along the way, not because he ever pandered to another’s ideas, but because, as Young sings in opener “The Painter,” “If you follow every dream, you might get lost.” He’s gone against the grain time and again to the frustration of record companies and fans, only to win them back with his next release. Prairie Wind can easily be counted among the godfather’s best, exhibiting a simple maturity, a new vulnerability, and a throwback sound that proves to the world and himself, that Neil Young is still here, still vital, and at the top his game.