Chrome Dreams II, the third studio CD from Neil Young in as many years, takes its name from an album that was recorded more than 30 years ago but was never officially released. A bootleg of Chrome Dreams surfaced in the 1990s -- I listen to my beloved downloaded copy about two or three times a month. Other than their shared title and author, the two works have little in common. Chrome Dreams is a richly textured, rough-around-the-edges collage of 18 tracks, including a love song to Pocahontas, an ode to homegrown pot, and I'm betting the only song ever written that features the lyrics "even Richard Nixon has got soul." Chrome Dreams II is an uneven follow up: Would that it were as unpolished, irreverent, and ineffable as its mysterious predecessor.
Young, who turns 62 in November and performs this weekend at the 21st Annual Bridge School Benefit concert at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View this weekend, has had a remarkable 21st century. There was his role after 9/11 as one of our nation's designated minstrel elders -- he performed John Lennon's humanist plea, "Imagine," during a live telecast immediately after the catastrophe and again at the 2001 incarnation of Bridge a scant six weeks later (where I was sitting, there was hardly a dry eye in the house). Then came the gorgeous, minimalist, rock-musical Greendale in 2003, followed by a year and a half of touring, often with a full company of actors in tow. But it was a brain aneurysm in 2005, which interrupted the recording of his acclaimed Prairie Wind, that appears to have had the most impact on Young's current body of work. That near-death experience prompted songs like "When God Made Me" from Prairie Wind and perhaps even contributed to the 2006 CD Living With War, which gets much of its urgency from having been recorded in just two weeks (to insure that its time-is-running-out message is clearly heard by listeners, it features a patriotic little ditty called "Let's Impeach The President").
With only a few exceptions, Chrome Dreams II doesn't get under one's skin as satisfyingly or frequently as Young's previous recent efforts. The album opens with sweet-sounding harmonica squeaking out a nursery-rhyme melody called "Beautiful Bluebird." No deep metaphors here, it's a song about a beautiful bluebird, "dippin' and bobbin' in the sun." Uh, okay. This sentimental number is followed by the folksy "Boxcar," which paints a portrait of the artist as an old man almost completely devoid of free will, which doesn't sound so bad to hear Young sing it, but still...
The CD's best track is an 18-minute dirge called "Ordinary People," which grinds its way, horn section and all, through a series of distinctively American set pieces and archetypes -- the Vegas bar with the big fight on the big screen; evil arms dealers and well-intentioned vigilantes; robotic consumers and the equally numb auto workers who crank out cars that people no longer want; High Noon cowboys and American Graffiti drag racers. This is the Neil Young that most fans are probably most comfortable with, the care-worn bard singing about the crushed hopes and dreams of common Joes and Janes, the "patch of ground people" as he calls them. Which is why the songs of personal enlightenment and spiritual peace that come next, while entirely understandable considering what Young's been through, are so disappointing. "Ordinary People" would be a tough act for any song to follow, but "Shining Light" seems especially soft and squishy, with its gentle rocking chord progressions and beseeching prayer for life's simple blessings to please continue, Amen.
"The Believer" and the CD's closing track, "The Way," mine the same vein even more overtly. Faith, reverence, and old-time religion have always been aspects of Young's repertoire, but earlier hymns such as "Mother Earth" have been pleas for the planet while "When God Made Me" was a clever acknowledgment of the spiritual stirrings in Young's heart, even as he mocked the self-absorbed, self-righteous redemption offered by the religious right. In contrast, some of this new stuff is so sincere, it almost tests one's faith in Neil Young.
Chrome Dreams II is out now. The 21st Annual Bridge School Benefit, which is likely to be the only chance this year for Bay Area audiences to hear Neil Young perform songs from the CD, is this weekend, Saturday Oct 27 at 5pm and Sunday October 28 at 2pm. For tickets and information visit bridgeschool.org.