American Stars ’n Bars
By the time Neil Young released American Stars ’n Bars in the spring of 1977, he’d already dismantled all the commercial goodwill he earned with 1972’s Harvest with his brutally non-commercial mid-decade “Ditch Trilogy.” After 1975’s milder Zuma, it seemed high time for him to refocus and find a new artistic track with Stars ’n Bars.
But brilliantly, he managed to shirk his responsibility to move in any particular direction and instead he used the record to embrace his own eclectic songwriting tendencies. After defaulting on the still-unreleased albums Homegrown and Chrome Dreams, the mid-’70s left Young with an extensive and diverse cache of unused songs, and Stars ’n Bars was a clearing house for many of them.
From its onset, side one (featuring five songs from one ’77 session) seems poised to match the unsophisticated, sweaty disarray of Stars ’n Bars’s whiskey bottle, upskirt, crushed-face-Neil cover art. With a 3/4 swing, sleazy violin, spot-on harmony vocals from Nicolette Larson and Linda Rondstadt and lonely blue-collar weeknight lyrics (“When I knock down tequila and salt … In this empty bar” ), opener “The Old Country Waltz” is an unashamed, unrefined, headfirst-drunken-nosedive into authentic country. Adding cowbell and amateurish riffing, follow-up “Saddle Up The Palamino” picks up the tempo while preserving the decidedly un-classy mood.
A welcomed softening arrives with “Hey Babe,” a restrained, confessional serenade sung by a Young immeasurably more sincere than the inebriated barstool romantic he portrayed on the first two tracks. But any emotional affection it earns is erased by the two regressive numbers rounding out the more-country-than-country side one.
Side two, home to the jumbled sampling of orphan songs dating back as far as three years, begins in earnest with the gentle acoustic “Star of Bethlehem.” But just as Stars ’n Bars looks destined to seal its fate as an undistinguished collection of weightless, above-average country rock, it drifts off into “Will to Love.” A seven-minute meditation in which Young paints himself as a migrating salmon to convey the determination of his love, it emanates from a world light years beyond the grounded songs it succeeds. “When the water grew less deep / my fins were aching from the strain / I’m swimming in my sleep / I know I can’t go back again,” Young’s double-tracked vocal spills onto a bumpy lo-fi canvas touched unevenly with vibraphone, cabaret piano and other transient auxiliary noises.
As “Will to Love” fades into oblivion, Young’s distinctive Les Paul scream breaks in and propels him even further into the cosmos on “Like a Hurricane.” Exploring the limits of his guitar above a Crazy Horse groove augmented by a shimmering organ, Young cleverly manages to boost the hypnotic pull left over from “Will to Love” by turning up the volume and intensity. When he sings “You are just a dreamer / and I am just a dream,” it stands as a reality check that is only confirmed when Young’s dive-bombing solo concludes the intoxicating eight-minute epic. After the 15-minute shock wave of the two tracks — perhaps the greatest back-to-back pairing on any Young album — “Homegrown” is an underwhelming closer.
For Neil Young, the 1970s marked a period of artistic achievement that few musicians will ever match. But American Stars ’n Bars is merely a pleasant diversion that pads two immortal tracks with seven others that amount to just plain fun. In Young’s celebrated catalogue, Stars probably isn’t among his ten best albums. But its most valuable asset is that it’s the only album that effectively communicates the mid-’70s malaise Neil Young found himself in as he became his generation’s least compromising artist.