The Lowdown: In the office of Elliot Roberts, Neil Young’s manager for more than 50 years, there hung a handwritten message from Young tacked onto the wall: “Just do what you want to do,” it read. “Don’t listen to anyone else.” Young has always heeded his own advice on this matter, often to a fault, but his stubborn refusal to stray from his own singular vision is exactly what’s made him such a fascinating and admirable subject, especially as he’s entered his twilight years. Unlike many other gold-star icons from his generation (looking at you, Macca), Young still does only what the hell he wants to do, regardless of trends, whether that means canceling an entire tour to focus on fifteen film projects or investing in a high-quality digital music player that looks like a Toblerone.
How this mindset has manifested itself in record form has been unpredictable, to say the least; just in the last few years, he’s released a number of concept albums, including one intermixed with nature sounds and one that was recorded in an old-timey music booth. A large portion of this output has been forgettable, but it’s still always interesting.
On Colorado, the first album with Crazy Horse since 2012’s comically expansive Psychedelic Pill, and the first since Elliot Roberts died suddenly in June at the age of 76, Young has stayed true to doing only what he wants to do — but he’s also reined it in a bit, with frequently strong results. This is likely the most accessible record he’s made since 2007’s underrated Chrome Dreams II, and yet it still has a strong bite that only the Horse can bring out of him.
The Good: To be sure, there’s never been a Crazy Horse collaboration that didn’t feel invigorating in some way — going back to 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, the rhythm section of Ralph Molina on drums and Billy Talbot on bass has been alchemical for Young, one of those magic combinations of humans that just works. But just as Ragged Glory kicked Young into a higher gear to enter his surprisingly powerful and enduring run in the ’90s, Colorado feels like it has a spark that’s prone to kick off a promising new era for Shakey.
This collection was recorded over 11 days in Telluride, Colorado, with the band reportedly needing oxygen on hand to keep powering through the high Rocky Mountain altitude (it’s worth remembering that they are in their seventies with the exception of new full-time member Nils Lofgren, 68, who arrived as a replacement for guitarist Poncho Sampedro, who retired before this album). Indeed, Colorado does have a nice specificity to it and sounds like it was recorded with purpose, focus, and lots of strong coffee. Unexpectedly, though, the best songs on it are the quieter ones, where Crazy Horse’s presence is less profound. “Olden Days”, which is about losing friends, and “Green Is Blue”, which is about feeling hopeless about climate change, are brutally sad songs and two of his most moving in years. More importantly, “Milky Way”, a love song that sounds like it would’ve fit right in during the Zuma sessions, is a landmark for Young and a real reminder of why he’s one of the greatest guitarists in the history of rock, particularly when he decides to play slow.
The Bad: This is a record for Neil-heads. It’s not going to make many new fans, and it’s unlikely to be universally well regarded, either. That’s inevitable, considering Young’s insistence on being incredibly literal and repetitive in singing about environmental causes at the center of the record. He’s absolutely right about those causes, though, and deserves immense credit for having been one of the first of his kind to speak out against the atrocities of the corporate world, but lyrics about polar bears and mother nature start to distract after a while. (He’s much more effective when screaming something like, “Won’t someone help me lose my mind,” which he does, naturally, on “Help Me Lose My Mind”.)
There’s an impossible issue that’s inevitable when listening to a Young record in 2019: None of the music on Colorado really holds a candle compared to his more legendary material — particularly that of his impeccable stretch that lasted from 1969 to 1979. That is an unfortunate and not entirely fair fault to have, but it’s also the truth. This might be easier to hide if Young wasn’t continually surrounding his new releases with reissues and archival material that emphasize just how incredible he used to be.
The Verdict: Putting aside the complicated history of Neil Young and considering his new album simply within the lens of rock music in 2019, track by track it still plays purely like a force of nature. No one has ever been able to cop Young’s style — though many have tried — and even when he isn’t at his A-game, he’s still an absolute treasure, using major-label resources to do wild stuff like follow his muse straight into the damn mountains. (This has got to be the first album in history to feature a 13-minute guitar jam that also cites the catering crew in the credits.) Colorado is pretty good. The fact that Young made it at this stage of his career is even better.
Essential Tracks: “Green Is Blue”, “Milky Way”