This past week, I split my time between trying to wrap up winter break writing projects (say tuned!) and trying to prep for the coming semester. On the best days, I did a bit of both, and some of that was inspired by Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s latest album Barn. Musically, it’s a follow up to their 2019 album Colorado which received the (in)famous “generally positive reviews.” I prefer Barn to Colorado, but not for any very good reason. Maybe Barn feels more random and raw than Colorado and that suited my mood (or even the mood).
A review of Barn over at Pitchfork offered a bizarre take on this album as a lede: “Neil Young’s decision to prioritize immediacy over craft in his later years means these tunes arrive lovingly weathered, but rarely go anywhere in particular.”
There is a lot to unpack in this statement. First, I was struck by the idea that immediacy was the opposite of craft. This seems to me to be the kind of statement that improvised musicians have pushed back against for years. An especially uncharitable reading would note that the criticism of immediacy as lacking craft often finds itself mixed up in a kind of racial rhetoric of Black music and art as unrestrained emotion or “unschooled” in comparison to finely crafted and deliberate white art. Obviously this doesn’t apply to Neil Young who is not only white, but Canadian, but the legacy of this kind of critique is a bit problematic.
In fact, the statement gets muddier still when the author acknowledges that tunes are weathered. The patina attributed to the tunes suggests that these are not spontaneous compositions bursting from the Young and Crazy Horse’s surplus emotion, but songs, ideas, and styles long exposed to the elements. The immediacy of these tunes is a studied immediacy. Or better still, we can resolve the tension between immediacy and craft by saying that these tunes reflect the crafted immediacy of a group who knows how to conjure a mood by deploying deeply familiar sounds. The best example of this is the dirty guitar at the start of “Heading West” which is about as weathered as this album gets and if it’s not a deliberate reference to Crazy Horse’s harder, guitar rock days in the 1970s, then I’m not sure what is.
As for the critique that the songs don’t go anywhere “in particular,” this is what Neil Young songs do. His songs hang out down by the river (where, for some reason or other, he shot his baby), amble along prairie highways, or embody melonymic meditations with only fuzzy references. Part of Young’s power as a songwriter is that his songs consistently articulate rudderless surfeit of passion. He’s the archpriest of the kind of hopeless, directionless, wandering that is not quite without purpose or values (after all, Young imagines himself a principled man and can be outspoke), but often finds itself on a tour bus or outside a tired midwest town or alone, on stage, performing for an audience that changes every night.
In other words, if Neil Young is anything, he’s pure craft. The weathering, immediacy, and songs that go nowhere is fundament to Young’s musical legacy. Moreover, it’s clear that Neil Young knows this and the regular alternation of unreleased, re-released, and new material reflects a sense of timelessness that complements the directionlessness of his lyrics and songs.
By the end of Barn, you get the feeling that albums like this are the Neil Young’s response to his most famous lyric “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” (or even “better to burn out than it is to rust”). His career appears resistant to rust or burn out owing to its own irreducible consistency. His crafted immediacy ensures that while there is better and worse Neil Young, there will never be bad or great Neil Young.