Review Summary: Too bad it's average.
Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams
could have been a classic, as it was filled with some of Young’s most wistful and heart-broken folk and some of his most blazing guitar work. We could’ve been speaking of Chrome Dreams
with as much reverence as other Young classics, like After the Gold Rush
. But Chrome Dreams
was never released, and succumbed to a fate that befell SMiLE
, and Songs From the Black Hole
, only to be heard by die-hard fans determined to gather the scraps. Instead, we get Chrome Dreams II
. Neil Young revisits his classic that never was with an album that seemingly has no resemblance to the original despite the chronological name. Why does the name reference that lost classic? Hell, I don’t know. Marketing technique, maybe, but I doubt Young’s really looking for a Top 40 hit at sixty-two years old. The real reason may be that Young likes to stay unpredictable, even if Chrome Dreams II
is one of his most predictable records to date.
collects seven brand new tracks and tacks them on to three live favorites that never received an actual release. These live favorites are tacked on to the front, and these favorites aren’t favorites for nothing: these three songs are the real reason to buy this album. “Beautiful Bluebird” is wistful and tender, driven forward by a low harmonica and a bouncy piano beat, telling tales of a dirt-stained cowboy thinking of a place more natural and beautiful than his own. Yeah, the lyrics aren’t anything special, but the tender melody is the primary focus of the song, not the lyrics. “Boxcar” is a pure outlaw country tune that features patriotic lyrics sung with a truly anarchic snarl. And then there’s the classic “Ordinary People”, which is an eighteen-minute epic that bubbles with horns, fuzzed-out guitar, harmonica solos, swelling violins, and tales of drunks, partying, and drug dealers. It’s the album’s centerpiece; it seems made to fit this part; yet it was written almost twenty years ago, for 1988’s This Note’s For You
. A song with an eighteen-minute run time is sure to produce adjectives such as “epic” and “sprawling”, and it’s exactly those things. It aims to be as big as “Stairway to Heaven” and “The Weight”, and while it doesn’t reach the heights of those defining tracks, it’s still pretty frickin’ awesome. Working class, meet your new anthem.
Too bad the rest of Dreams II
pales in comparison to the first twenty minutes of he album. “Shining Light” seems made for adult-contemporary radio, and is boring and over-sentimental as a result. “No Hidden Path”, at fourteen minutes long, attempts to recapture what “Ordinary People” did earlier in the record, but two centerpieces makes for one overstuffed center, and “No Hidden Path” is neither epic enough nor sprawling enough to match “Ordinary People”. To be a fourteen-minute plus epic, you got to stuff it with quirks and added instrumentation, or else the song just gets boring. “No Hidden Path” just feels like a fuzzed-out jam session. “The Way” attempts to end the album in a positive and hopeful environment, with a soft yet powerful piano lead, but instead the background children’s chorus is tacky and hilarious. But not in a good way. Young attempts to hit higher notes here, but his childish voice blends within the actual children’s singing, and the whole song becomes uncomfortable.
Some of the new songs aren’t bad though. “Spirit Road” bristles with real emotion, and not the toneless, commercialized emotion found on “Shining Light”. It holds up its six-minute time well, with an “it’s-all-right” theme and the famed, fuzzed guitar noodling Young’s known for. “Dirty Old Man” has lyrics that are average at best; Young trying his best to sound a beer-guzzling and pot-smoking outlaw but instead comes off that scary uncle that always smokes that funny cigar and spends ninety percent of his time at the neighborhood bar. But the thumping guitar leads and solos save an otherwise cheesy song, and it’s good to hear Young get his exuberance out one way or another.
Chrome Dreams II
might not have much to do at all with its predecessor, and it doesn’t stand out and become as good of an album as the original would have been. The best songs are ones Young should’ve released earlier, and the newer songs feel fragmented and without much purpose, as if Young was just getting enough material together to flesh out an album. It’s just an average album, which, admittedly, is better than what Living With War
can say about itself. Next time, just give Young the memo to make a B-sides album, and then we may have a record to talk about for years to come.