The end of a decade really seems to bring out the fear and loathing in Neil Young. In 1969, he bid an embittered adieu to the shaky Sixties promise of Peace and Love with the irascible guitars and confessional despair of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Ten years later, on Rust Never Sleeps, he addressed the advancing arthritis and superstar complacency of Seventies rock with bristling verse and corrosive guitar violence, not to mention the deliberately provocative evocation of Elvis Presley and Johnny Rotten in the same song.
is the sound of Neil Young, another decade on, looking back again in anger and dread. The songs are populated by the walking wounded and littered with dashed hopes and drug paraphernalia. The ties that bind faith, love, charity are coming undone, and betrayal is the norm. Then Young throws all this hurt at you, and it hits like a bucket of ice water in the face. You register shock at first, then indignation and finally a kind of vengeful exhilaration. As with Rust
and Everybody Knows
and with other contentious classics like On the Beach, Tonight's the Night
Neil Young's tour of Freedom
's wasteland leaves you feeling both exhausted and invigorated, dismayed at what we've wrought yet determined to set it right.
It's no coincidence that "Rockin' in the Free World," the album's de facto theme song, bookends Freedom in separate live-acoustic and studio-electric versions. Like "My My, Hey Hey ..." its twin on Rust Never Sleeps the song is a sing-along ball spinning on an axis of deadly irony, its superficial cheerleading charm soured by Young's parade of victims: the homeless "sleepin' in their shoes," a young woman addict, her abandoned baby ("That's one more kid/That will never go to school/Never get to fall in love/Never get to be cool"). And in the acoustic take, which opens the record, Young plays it like a body-count blues, his high, lonesome countertenor ringing with plaintive desperation.
The acoustic track, however, fades before the crucial last verse, which is restored in the climactic electric version. Over a thunder-fuzz attack that sounds like Rust to the tenth power, Young takes dead aim at cheap inauguration rhetoric ("We got a thousand points of light/For the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler, machine gun hand"), then whips around and takes a different pledge of allegiance. "Got a man of the people/Says keep hope alive," he howls. "Got fuel to burn/Got roads to drive."
The whole record seesaws like that, between pensive acoustic woe and embattled electric vigor. That's partially because of the varying origins of these songs. The ballads "Ways of Love" (one of two duets with Linda Ronstadt on the LP) and the achingly beautiful "Too Far Gone" date back to the late Seventies. "Don't Cry," "Eldorado" and a frenzied cover o