Revisiting Underrated Classic from Neil Young & Crazy Horse

Rock legends reunited for 1987 LP ‘Life’

When you listen to a Neil Young album, you never know what to expect. Sometimes the experience is good and sometimes it’s bad, but the one constant always seems to be that listener can expect the unexpected. Although he has been inconsistent, throughout his 50-plus-year career, he has dazzled fans and critics with biting lyrics, sentimental love songs, protest anthems and screaming guitars.

Young always has been one of music’s most creative and experimental artists, but he’s at his best when he plays unapologetically straightforward rock ‘n’ roll, whether it’s the earthy, grungy sound that he made popular with songs like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Down by the River” or with psychedelic albums like “Rust Never Sleeps” and “Sleeps With Angels.”

After hitting something of an apex at the close of the ‘70s, Young was perceived to be in a creative slump by 1987. He had recorded such obscure albums as “Trans,” “Re-ac-tor” and “Landing on Water” that were panned by critics, who dismissed those works as being uninteresting, dull and overproduced. They were enjoyed only by the artist’s most diehard fans, though now even most of them probably would admit that they didn’t like the material.

But that decline came to an end with the release of “Life,” an LP that saw Young reunite with longtime backup band Crazy Horse and go back to his grungy, thrash-guitar roots.

Like 1979’s aforementioned “Rust Never Sleeps,” the majority of the late-‘80s output was recorded live and given overdubs later. A few songs were recorded in a studio environment. The same can be said of “Life.” While the album also features loud drums and synthesizers, the kind of which was prevalent on “Landing on Water,” as well, here those elements don’t overshadow the taut musicianship and introspective, heartfelt lyrics.

The album’s concept is simple: The first half of it was intended to raise social consciousness at a time when President Reagan was increasing American military presence in the Middle East in spite of the fact that wounds accrued in Vietnam still had yet to heal. Resultant songs such as “Long Walk Home,” “Mideast Vacation” and “Around the World” all function as anti-war anthems.

Young is an outspoken anti-war activist, and that stance has long influenced his music. Sometimes his zeal has been downright obnoxious, but here he makes his point without being offensive, largely thanks to the brilliant music and lyrics.

In addition to his disdain for military conflict, Young maintains a hatred for the business side of the music industry. That’s no secret to his longtime fans, but it’s that attitude that undoubtedly spawned “Prisoners of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” In the rollicking Side B tune, Young defiantly sings that “we don’t wanna be good” because of the greedy “record company man” who wants to alter his sound to make it more commercial and radio friendly.

The second half of “Life” is looser and more traditional, with Young veering between established genres. He pays tribute to punk rock with “Too Lonely,” a simple but catchy track. The ‘80s was the decade of the tender power ballad, and Young obliges with “Cryin’ Eyes,” “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks” and “We Never Danced,” the three of which, in that order, close out the album.

In short, “Life” is a must-have record for any serious Young fan. Admittedly, it fails to pack the same punch as his earlier work with Crazy Horse – or even some of their more recent collaborations; do yourself a favor and check out “Psychedelic Pill” if you haven’t already. But the elements that sparked a flourishing musical relationship between Neil and the Horse are present here in droves.

And in many ways, this is a quintessential rock album. It is caring, fun, rebellious and a little noisy. And aren’t those the ingredients that have helped rock ‘n’ roll stand the test of time?

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