A retrospective examination of Neil Young’s 40-plus-year career led me to conclude Young’s primary artistic aim has always been to confuse his audience. So it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise he titled his new album Chrome Dreams II, making it a sequel, at least titularly, to an unreleased album from the ’70s that few of his fans even knew existed.
But there’s the catch: The listeners who are most likely to avoid II for its uninviting title are the same people most apt to appreciate it. Granted, they probably won’t adore all of the 65 minutes of music found in the album, but its stylistically varied songs (its only connection with its predecessor) means there’s something here for everyone (unless they’re looking for something like Young’s feloniously underrated ’80s synth-rock experiments).
Opening the album with three 20-year-old, previously unreleased songs (not from Chrome Dreams, because that would make too much sense) seems like an oddly submissive choice for the man who once issued the mythical decree “It’s better to burn out / Than to fade away.” Though a bit lyrically shallow, the gentle acoustic leadoff “Beautiful Bluebird” features a gorgeously quaint melody reminiscent of Young’s commercial zenith Harvest or the more recent Prairie Wind. Young is at his insular best on the follow-up “Boxcar,” a banjo character sketch of an apathetic train hopper.
The album’s emotional centerpiece, “Ordinary People,” is an 18-minute lyrical flood about urban decay in America. The piece is accentuated with moody horns and poignant guitar touches. Though they might’ve sounded a bit more natural coming from Bruce Springsteen, blue-collar lyrics like “Down at the factory / They’re puttin’ new windows in / The vandals made a mess of things / And the homeless just walked right in” are concrete by Young’s standards but still compelling. Discounting one embarrassingly dated Lee Iacocca reference, they’ve held up brilliantly for 20 years. (?)
Sometimes backing band Crazy Horse, which has long buoyed Young’s lengthy guitar jams, is only represented here by drummer Ralph Molina, but that hasn’t prevented Young from creating two great new guitar workouts. “Spirit Road” is an intense, distorted squall with tenacious solo breaks. “No Hidden Path” matches in potency, but meanders a bit more, making it more similar to “Down By the River” than anything else in Young’s massive catalog.
“The Believer,” a lighthearted soul ode with one of his most accessible melodies, finds the 64-year-old Young having fun, somewhat of a rarity in his typically resolute songwriting. That carries over on “Dirty Old Man,” an exciting, barn-stomping rocker where Young, obviously in character, chastises himself as exactly what the title implies with brief accounts of alcoholic and adulterous misadventures. Other details of what being a “dirty old man” entails have presumably been left to the imagination.
The only real flop is “Shining Light,” with trite lyrics reminiscent of Christian rock. Verses like “Shed your light / All around me / Now that you’ve found me / And I’ve found you” have doubtless been repeated in mega-churches across the country.
Closing with the peaceful piano ballad “The Way,” Young proves his scope one last time, augmenting his voice with a children’s choir. The precarious move works surprisingly well, helping to foster a blissful tone of conclusion.
And though “The Way” shows he’s definitely not burning out, Chrome Dreams II delivers enough to prove he’s not fading away. His new work still shows vitality absent in the works of all his antiquated contemporaries. While he may never write another “Hey, Hey, My, My,” he hasn’t yet succumbed to the corrosive aging it cautions.
3 out of 5 stars.