In Music

"Prairie Wind" reminds us Canadian Young is American treasure

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.

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Talkbacks

OMCreader | Oct. 16, 2005 at 10:10 p.m. (report)

powderfinger said: First off, I would like to say I happen to be a hardcore Neil fan, seeing him 10 times, owning all his records/cds, plus a host of bootlegs. To me what I don't like is Neil song writing on this CD. Within his writing skills, I think he's worked the "love" theme to the ground. Musically it's arranged nicely and it's okay to listen to. I do like Neil's audiophile appoach to recording. But it's no compairison to Greendale. I will listen to it more and see if it grows on me. As for his voice- it's better then 80% of the singers out there.

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OMCreader | Oct. 13, 2005 at 10:29 p.m. (report)

Vegas said: I bought Prarie Wind the day after it was released. I purchase music about 6 times a year and just happened to walk into the store and see the cd on the new releases rack. It is one of the best cd's I've ever heard. I recommend purchasing the DVD/CD package. The DVD is the making of Prarie Wind. I truly hope Mr. Young tours again and if he is any where near Milwaukee, I will go to see him. Thanks for the great article.

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OMCreader | Oct. 13, 2005 at 11:19 a.m. (report)

Tony said: First, kudos to Bill Zaferos for another stellar review. When you read Bill's review you begin to understand what dribble the J/S and Sheperd Express get away with. We are a music town and deserve more of this thoughtful and well written prose. Bill- ever think of expanding your readership? Now onto Neil Young...what you don't understand ipodboy is you need a soul to appreciate this stuff...when your zits dry up and you begin to think with your brain you might just actually get it...music is so incredibly difficult to create, try and appreciate it from all angles, beautiful/fun words, beautiful/fun instrumentals and beautiful/fun voices. Not every song is going to have all three....Being a child of the seventies Neil Young will always be a part of me. I'm just glad he still values that relationship he has with us and continues to struggle to make new music.

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OMCreader | Oct. 13, 2005 at 10:49 a.m. (report)

Cozen Beguile said: I hope Neil Young can remember! I put Neil up there with other great artist with bad voices like Jim M. and Bob D.

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OMCreader | Oct. 13, 2005 at 7:14 a.m. (report)

Ipodboy said: Neil Young is old and sings like a bird. Go back to Canada.

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