Review Summary: Neil learns how to cope with despair: Music is the answer.
Hello to everybody: I’m Junio from Cagliari, Italy and this is my first review!
I’m going to discuss one of the few Neil Young’s records having not been reviewed here so far: the magnificent “Zuma”.
Released in 1975, it was the second effort Neil co-shared with the Crazy horse. Only five years had passed since “Everybody knows this is nowhere”, but it felt like centuries…
The dreams of the Woodstock generation had faded into the abyss of the Seventies, with their political disappointment, heroin- fuelled dimensions and lost companions.
The man from Ontario broke through the desolation of his “doom trilogy”, in which he had transformed his demons in cathartic, awesome and uncompromising music, demonstrating that he had not been overwhelmed by despair. The following step was obvious: riding again on the “crazy horse” to shake off sadness, sentimental and political failures and post-hippy depression in order to release a classic, guitar-driven record.
Having replaced Danny Whitten ( R.I.P.: “but every junkie is like a setting sun…” ) with rhythmic guitarist Poncho Sampedro, the californian garage band makes an outstanding backing up of Neil. The sound of “Zuma” is raw and anthemic , being mainly focused on the links between guitars: feedback and distorsions are intertwined, thus moving a step closer toward the creation of that “electric guitar-drenched dimension” – showcasing a perfectly balanced interplay between the two guitars - which will reach its zenith on the electric side of “Rust never sleeps”, therefore inspiring the grunge generation through bands like Dinosaur jr, Sonic Youth and Pixies.
“Cortez the killer” is undoubtedly the core of “Zuma”, as well as being one of the most celebrated songs of the 70’s. Everything is perfect in this seven and a half minutes epic: Poncho’s steady patterns, Neil’s extensive solos, Billy Talbot sticky bass lines and the excellent drumming of Ralph Molina, both soft and nervous. Neil’s vocals as well are noteworthy, as he depicts the bloody conquest of Mexico from the native point of view, even if the lyricism is not as pure as in “Pocahontas”, the result is nonetheless powerful. Neil’s own pre-colombian America may be filled with rethoric (“Hate was just a legend/ War was never known”: that was definetly untrue), but the magic of images he evokes is simply alluring.
“Danger bird” is another highlight: Neil and the horses ride through an obscure guitar maelstrom, whereas the light-hearted “Stupid girl” and “Drive back” feature amazing bluesy riffs and solos. In songs like “Don’t cry no tears”, “Barstool blues” and the country-tinged “Lookin’ for a love” the guitar power is instead mellowed by beautiful melodies, so as to create some wonderful and catchy tunes.
“Lookin’ for a love” in particular is a great song with its late-Byrds flavour, and it perfectly illustrates the mood of the album. Neil walks alone in Zuma Beach, and even if in its sandy shores he’s not as helpless as he was on the cover of “On the Beach”, the Loner provides bittersweet lyrics like “Lookin’ for a love that’s right for me / I don’t know how long it’s gonna be/ But I hope I treat her kind and don’t mess with her mind/ When she starts to see the darker side of me”.
Since we have defined “Zuma” a classic record, there obviously must be Neil’s trademark: the Ballad. “Pardon my heart” is a tender folk number, strengthened by an electric solo. Neil’s lyrics here are shimmering. He cynically points out “ I don’t believe this song”, but then admits “ Pardon my heart If I showed that I Cared/ But I love you more than moments We have or have not shared”. The closing track instead - surpringly an outtake from a session with Crosby, Stills, Nash - is “Through my sails”. A breezy jewel, with the classic West Coast vocal harmonies which perfectly fit in a graceful melody, while superb lyrics like “I'm standing on the shoreline /It's so fine out there /Leaving with the wind blowing /But love takes care” are a picture-perfect ending for “Zuma”.