By Bill Zaferos   Published Oct 13, 2005 at 5:27 AM

{image1}Neil Young should be declared an American national treasure. Even if he is a Canadian.

Other than, say, Bruce Springsteen, who else has better expressed the late 20th and early 21st century American experience? Whether it was "Ohio" or "Rockin' in the Free World," or "Southern Man" or "Unknown Legend" or even "Old King," Young has always given voice to the meaning of life among the amber waves of grain, the crack-laden neighborhoods or the romantic longing of an American heart.

Young can make a guitar howl and scream -- his "Arc" album consisted of 35 minutes of live guitar feedback -- but on "Prairie Wind," he makes his guitar coo, and, with the help of some backup singers, strings and brass, he creates a lush sound that is usually gentle as a prairie breeze.

Much has been made of the fact that Young put this album together prior to his life-threatening surgery for a brain aneurism. And while there's no question that the thought of death has a way of focusing the mind, this is no morbid, mawkish look back. Rather, it is a reflective but compelling companion to "Harvest Moon." On that album, Young sang, "one of these days I'm going to sit right down and write a long letter to all the good friends I've known."

Well, this is that letter.

But this is no morbid, mawkish look back by an aging rocker facing his advancing age and the inevitable coda. It's just Neil being Neil in acoustic mode.

As usual, his voice varies between squeaky and wispy, but the strength of his songs always makes up for his shortcomings as a singer. On "Prairie Wind," that voice is perfect for the mood of the rest of the album.

"The Painter," a trademark Young ballad, sets the tone for the rest of the album with a chorus that gives you the sense of an old man taking a look at his life. "It's a long road behind me," he sings. "It's a long road ahead. If you follow every dream, you might get lost." It sounds as though Young has known where he was going all along.

On "Far From Home," a brass-inflected rocker that sounds like he's almost amused by the concept of mortality, he sings, "bury me out on the prairie, where the buffalo used to roam, where the Canada geese once filled the sky, and then I won't be far from home."

Young breaks out the harmonica on "Here for You," for a number that harkens back to "Heart of Gold," and "When God Made Me" shows Young at his most pensive.

OK, so maybe we don't need another Elvis tribute, but Young contributes one with the clunky "He Was the King," a weak point on the album that sounds a bit like a throwaway. But then again, how can you sing about the American soul without including Elvis?

"This Old Guitar," which echoes the sound of "Harvest Moon" so closely you can almost hear the same chords, would be a fitting tribute to Young if he never recorded another song. "This old guitar ain't mine to keep, it's only mine for awhile," he sings.

And when he's finished with it, it should be placed in the Smithsonian Institution along with a copy of "Prairie Wind." In the Americana section.