I have to go back to Chrome Dreams II for the previous new release from Neil Young that I dove into. And that came out in… 2007? Has it really been that long? Geez. Up until now, Neil’s new releases haven’t stuck with me. I gave Le Noise and Fork In The Road a casual listen before writing this just to confirm I had listened to them before. And I had. There is some quirky fun to be had on them, for sure, but there is also a ton of waffling around.
I did enjoy The Times for what it is, but I’m a little lost with the rest from the past decade or so. They might get a stream from me, but I tend to forget about them as they become buried under the avalanche of archived releases Neil has been cranking out. And, honestly, I have been enjoying how Neil has been cleaning up the ’70s material better. Albums like Hitchhiker and Homegrown a spoken to me heck of a lot more than Colorado or Earth has.
So Barn had some work to do in order to grab my attention. And it did. I think this is Neil’s first truly good album in a long time. Perhaps, it is even great at times.
I’d say for the past 30 years or so, Neil’s albums tend to be mostly all “hard rock” or “singer/songwriter.” You’ll either have a pastoral album like Harvest Moon or Prarie Wind, or Neil going full fuzz with Crazy Horse on albums such as Ragged Glory or Greendale.
I have become so accustomed to this formula, that when Barn opened with a Harvest-like sound on Song of the Season, my first thought was this was going to be a mellow one. But then the 2nd song, Heading West, kicks in with a blast of Neil’s Les Paul and we are launched towards a traditional Neil Young and Crazy Horse heavy groove.
That kind of shift in gears between songs happens often on Barn. It is a throwback to his classic ’70s albums where he would show all sides of his talent. Back then, you’d sometimes get an acoustic album (Comes At Time) or an electric-heavy one (Zuma), but for the most part albums like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Harvest, and Tonight’s The Night would feature Neil on acoustic guitar, electric, mouth harp, piano, etc. Heck, After the Gold Rush had both Tell Me Why and Southern Man on it.
Barn was released this past December (2021), but I waited for a price drop on Amazon to get the “Deluxe Edition”. Not only does the set come with a vinyl and CD copy of the album, but an accompanying film with the same name. The film was shot by Daryl Hannah, aka Neil’s wife, whose style is a bit like an uncle who is enamored with a feature on a new camera. And that would be time-lapse. There is heavy use of this throughout as every song from the album is played in full. My enjoyment of the film increased every time the time-lapse switched away to footage of Neil and Crazy Horse playing the tunes. Awesome to see them now in their ’70s, still enjoying a rock out like they are teenagers.
The film also does a good job of framing what Neil’s vision was for Barn, which was to capture the moment. There was some light pushback from some of Crazy Horse who were anxious over the process. Only having 10 days to record the album’s 10 songs left fewer chances to do takes for each song. In the film, bassist Billy Talbot described 100 or so takes they did for Down By The River, a song on Neil’s first album with Crazy Horse. At another point in the film, drummer Ralph Molina begs Neil to do another take from the bridge on one of the later tracks. Neil just kindly refuses.
And Neil was right to take this approach. Talbot was later blown away by the quality of the recordings and the performance after listening to the takes in the studio truck.
Neil has done this kind of “of the moment” album before. Living with War and The Times do come to mind. I’m a fan. I feel like his ranty-style lyrics are given more weight when they are performed this way. And you do get some here. Canerican, I imagine is Neil responding to angry American internet trolls who tell him to go back to Canada because they are not intelligent enough to debate their terrible opinions. And Human Race is about the ragged state leaving the planet in for future generations. But, before the album is over, Neil repeatedly tells us to Don’t Forget Love. Because that is important too.
Barn gets a heavy recommendation from me, but you can probably skip the Deluxe Edition as I don’t feel the film warrants the extra cost. That price drop brought the cost down to $50 Canadian for me (it regularly goes for around $90), but I could have gone with the standard edition for $20. I probably would have been happy with that. The film does peel back the curtain a bit on the album’s process, but I’m talking maybe about 5 mins worth. Tops. The rest is timelapse and watching Neil pee beside the barn. Hannah really liked to film him doing this. To each their own, I guess.
Barn on its own is a must-own. It is loaded with songs that remind me of classic albums throughout Neil’s career. Welcome Back sounds like one of those long jam tunes from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Shape of You fits right in with Tonight’s The Night, and Tumble’ Thru the Years could be on Comes A Time. And they are just as good. This could even act as a proper bookend to an amazing career, but we all know Neil is far from done yet.