Saturday, May 05, 2012

Crash Landing

Continuing a series we started, and then abandoned, many moons ago, we put our hand into the bag and draw out at random another post-1970s Neil Young album, with a view to determining whether you should listen to it.

This week / month / year: "Landing On Water", from 1986.

Which can only be described as a very bad record. 

It is difficult to say what happened to Young, musically, in the '80s: specifically, whether his musical fragmentation was driven by his seemingly uncomfortable fit with Geffen Records, or whether his trouble with Geffen stemmed from his inability to give David Geffen what David Geffen thought David Geffen wanted, or whether the two things were entirely coincidental. Certainly, Young didn't automatically revert to his previous heights when he returned to Reprise (viz, "This Note's For You"), but it didn't take long for him to get back, at least sporadically, to what he did best, with "Freedom". And from that point on his embrace by the flannel-shirted grunge generation seemed to kick-start its own, still continuing, period of productivity.

(Young, like Dylan, Richard Thompson, and Ed Kuepper, seems to view releasing albums as just something that someone in his line of work has to do every couple of years, whether there is any particular inspiration or drive behind it or not. All four of those artists are best viewed through a combination of studio albums, compilations (often with songs that in hindsight inexplicably were left off studio albums) and live recordings. In what is, still, very much an album-driven market, the esteem in which all of them are held, notwithstanding this, is remarkable.)

When you listen to this album, you are inclined to think that Geffen had a point. It sounds like it was produced either by an untrained monkey or by the hearing impaired. Or maybe by a drummer: the drum sound is as close to perfect as a drum sound can be. The problem is that the rest of the musicians, and Young himself, sound like they were squashed together in the back corner and/or given collectively around two percent of the recording budget. Now, Young is no cloth-eared slouch when it comes to sound quality, so we can only assume that one of two things happened: he deliberately gave these recordings, in this state, to Geffen for release, in a rather spectacular "fuck you" gesture; or Geffen, in a fit of pique, messed with the recordings, in a rather spectacular, if self-defeating, "no, fuck you" gesture. (Either is plausible.)

Whichever way you cut it (or whichever way it was cut), the poor old listener is the loser. It is difficult, through the fog of everything except those up-close-and-personal drums, to ascertain the quality of the underlying songs. For myself, I can only give the benefit of the doubt, and then only provisionally, to one song, "Hippie Dream", which at least has the potential to sound like a Neil Young song, and would appear to tackle the kind of subject matter that might have made it seem not out of place on one of his raw, dissolute where-did-the-sixties-go? albums, referred to now as the "ditch trilogy".

(It also, I now discover, is the only "Landing On Water" recording to appear on Young's Geffen-era compilation album, "Lucky Thirteen". So perhaps I am not altogether misguided in hearing something in it.)