When, in the fall of 2011, Neil Young joined Dave Matthews during his set at Young’s annual Bridge School Benefit, the two launched into something no one in the crowd might have expected. “Something so old that no one knows,” Young joked, before the duo launched into a strange, violent version of “Oh Susanna”, a song so old that everyone knew it, whether they realized or not.
Six months later, what at the time seemed like a one-off, novelty performance has become the opening track and entry point to Americana, Neil Young’s first album with Crazy Horse in ten years. The record starts with an acknowledgement of time past, with four men re-becoming a band. Young fools around with a riff and drummer Ralph Molina follow suit. Billy Talbot is not far behind on bass, with Frank Sampedro the last to join in, snaking around Young’s lead on rhythm guitar. After 30 seconds, the band joins in together, and the Third Best Garage Band In The World is back.
If Young and Crazy Horse are still finding themselves on “Oh Susanna”, the band is at its finest by track two. “Clementine” is a triumph: Young wails his way through the verses, telling a story of death and drowning, of lost love and denial, with the severity it deserves. The band chugs its way through Young’s pained delivery, but it’s the move from minor chord to major that brings them to the chorus, offering the most joyous moment on a Neil Young record since the turn of the century. “They’re songs we all know from kindergarten,” Young says of Americana, “but Crazy Horse has rearranged them, and they now belong to us.”
Young is hardly the first of his contemporaries to revisit the American songbook. Both Dylan (1992′s Good As I Been To You, 1993′s World Gone Wrong) and Springsteen (2006′s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions) have turned to the country’s history of popular song for inspiration and revitalization in late middle-age. Of these folk re-visitations, Young’s record is the least ambiguous, eager to make a point.
On Americana, Young is constantly sculpting and shaping the material at hand, creating and manipulating meaning whenever possible. He is as careful to sing all the verses in “This Land Is Your Land”, the ones about private property and relief offices, as he is eager to leave out the verses on “Oh Susanna”, the ones that expose the song’s blackface roots. The straightforward arrangement on the former is one of the record’s least inspired tracks, but the omission or inclusion of various verses feels like a primary, if didactic, reason for its inclusion. On the latter, Young sticks to the arrangement debuted with Matthews last fall, which owes everything to The Big Three, Cass Elliot’s early folk revival group that recast Foster’s minstrel tune as “The Banjo Song” in 1963.
Refreshingly, though, Young’s American standards record doesn’t shy away from commercial pop. “Get a Job”, the sloppy take on The Silhouettes’ 1957 doo-wop single, and “Travel On”, Billy Grammer’s country-pop hit two years later, are as poignant and timely as any early folk ballad. While using the British National Anthem to close a record called Americana could have been a perverse joke, “God Save The Queen” is the final story Americana has to tell. The song, which suddenly segues into “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)”, ends with a children’s choir repeating the line “let freedom ring” until the band drops out, ending the record at its most hopeful. That America’s de facto national anthem until the early 20th century stole its melody from “God Save The Queen” is a point worth making for Young, never one to shy away from grand statements.
Americana’s greatest achievement lies in how effortlessly these early American songs become Young’s own. The ease with which the tales of murder, death, and condemnation (“Clementine”, “Gallows Pole”, “Tom Dula”), of frustration and lonely restlessness (“High Flyin’ Bird”, “Travel On”, “Get A Job”), become Neil Young & Crazy Horse songs is a convincing testament to the scope and durability of Young’s immense canon. This is well-traveled terrain for Young, who has fixated on and embraced this country’s own mythology and native past ever since the Canadian teenager from Ontario hitched a ride to L.A., threw on a brown fringed vest, and started a band called Buffalo Springfield. Songs like “Powderfinger”, “Cortez The Killer”, and “Pocahontas” could be hundreds of years old; they revisit the bloody national history that standards like “Oh Susanna”, “Clementine”, and “Tom Dula” work to preserve. On Americana, Young uses some very old stories to tell a new one, and that new story now belongs to him.
Essential Tracks: “Clementine”, “Tom Dula”, and “God Save The Queen”
Feature artwork by Steven Fiche.