The return of the weirdest classic rock n’ roller and his toughest, wildest band, together for the first time in seven years, should be a cause for celebration. Even if Crazy Horse’s long-running guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro sadly dropped out, his replacement by the perennially popular Nils Lofgren was further encouragement. And then there was the album’s title, Colorado, which seemed to promise a return-to-roots rock album. Plus the cover art, which like Bruce Springsteen’s return this year focussed on the image of a horse, although of course, naturally, Neil Young’s was darker and more twisted.
As expected, there are several tracks in the classic Crazy Horse mode of extended, crunching jams: most especially on the 13 ½ minutes of “She Showed Me Love”. That track has the same lengthy guitar explorations and lumbering groove that made the band famous; thanks mostly to Billy Talbot on bass and Ralph Molina on drums, it sounds as loud, mighty, awe-inspiring, and frightening as a T. Rex falling on your house. Crazy Horse are a band that sound ready-made to soundtrack the end of the world, which is very appropriate given the lyrics of the song. It’s about the destruction we’ve wrecked on Mother Earth, and in comparison the love she’s shown to Young throughout his life. It’s a howl of despair at the way we’ve treated the planet, with the grounded, sometimes hideously raw guitar solos from Young and Lofgren adding earthy grit to the lament.
Unfortunately, its repetitiveness lets it down. About half way through the song gets stuck in a rut, with Neil crooning “She showed me love” over and over and over again, with the band not changing up the groove often or compellingly enough to help you ignore the endless repetition. It becomes ever so tedious, like being hit in the face with a flower over and over again, and it stumbles onwards for 6 more clumsy minutes. Therefore, it falls way short of the intense heights of such extended Crazy Horse jams from the past as “Down by the River”, “Cowgirl in the Sand”, and “Cortez the Killer”.
The ecological message of “She Showed Me Love” and other tracks on the album is admirable, and given the hideous state of the world today it’s welcomingly unsubtle. However, when Neil sings: “I saw old white guys trying to kill mother nature” it seems immediately limited in its scope. Doesn’t the problem go way beyond just old white guys? Has Neil Young seen the list of the world’s biggest polluters, which includes China and Qatar?
His politicking therefore isn’t so effective as it should be – but that’s just classic Neil. We go to him for the intensity and barbed beauty of his music, not intelligent slogans to fight the end of the world (even if they would be welcome sometimes). His anti-Bush songs weren’t so smart either.
I’m just pleased that the other big ecology song on here, “Green is Blue”, is more satisfying. It’s a quieter, piano-dominated affair, more like a track off After the Gold Rush than Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. It’s also just as despairing as any of the songs on Gold Rush, with one verse a perfect summation of everything that’s gone wrong in the world recently:
We heard the warning calls, ignored them
We saw the weather change, we saw the fires and floods
We saw the people rise, divided
We fought each other while we lost our coveted prize.
It’s a tear shed for Mother Nature that in its own way is every bit as pissed off as “She Showed Me Love”. And with Young’s haunted croon and the slow shuffle of the band, as mentioned dominated by piano, it’s the perfect song to play as a backdrop to a David Attenborough documentary and weep at what we stand to lose if we don’t take action.
And don’t be mistaken – Young still believes in action. “Shut it Down” is about shutting the economic system down that’s destroying the planet, and “Rainbow of Colors” insists that “the people are strong” and will rise up against the destructive regimes of today. Even “She Showed Me Love” celebrates the “young folks fighting to save Mother Nature”.
Clearly old white man Young hasn’t given up on the planet, and good for him. Like most of us, he sees hope in the righteous anger and open-mindedness being displayed by the next generation. He doesn’t have to cite Greta Thunberg by name, but we know he’s thinking of her when he sings such lines.
Meanwhile, the music on Colorado seems steeped in the past. Most of the tracks wouldn’t be out of place on any 70s Neil Young & Crazy Horse album. Just with one important caveat, which is that the song-writing isn’t as strong. When it’s good, it’s very good: “Think of Me” is a compact, effective rocking opener. But when Neil follows his muse to the “Milky Way” and beyond to “Eternity”, it’s easy to feel left behind by the spacey, overlong compositions (“Eternity” is not even 3 minutes but it feels much longer).
Still, it’s welcome to have the band back and sounding as tough as ever. With better songs, this could’ve been a brutally efficient, and vital, ecological statement of intent.