Neil Young

Neil Young performs with Promise of the Real, in this photo from last summer. (Courtesy photo)

 

On Dec. 1, Neil Young had an entire year in one day. In fact, Dec. 1 encapsulated his entire 50-year career in music. 

The 72-year-old Young released his latest record, “The Visitor,” with Promise of the Real. On that same day, Young unleashed the most comprehensive digital archive of a musician ever on the internet at neilyoungarchives.com, and he closed out the historic night with a solo acoustic concert in front of a small audience in his hometown of Omemee, Ontario. 

“The Visitor” is studio album No. 36 (give or take) for Young, and the second record with Promise of the Real, a band fronted by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas (the band released a live record called “Earth” in 2016). It was Promise of the Real that backed up Young in Telluride for two shows in 2016. 

“The Visitor” was recorded at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studio in Malibu. In Promise of the Real, Young has found his 21st century Crazy Horse, the back-up band with whom he played for over a quarter of a century. That band’s raw and edgy sound fueled Young’s electric rock ’n’ roll career, and laid the foundation for grunge music and any outfit that ever turned an amp up to 11. 

On “The Visitor,” Promise of the Real not only distort guitars but they prove to be quite pliable. They do honky-tonk on “Diggin’ a Hole,” lay down a Santana-esque groove in “Carnival,” and provide a softer acoustic backdrop to several tunes, like “Almost Always,” “Change of Heart” and “Forever.” These are my favorite tracks on the record, classic Neil — think “Harvest Moon” in the age of alternative truths. 

In many ways “The Visitor” is a love letter to his native Canada and his adopted homeland to the south. On the first song on the record “Already Great,” Young sings, “I’m Canadian by the way and I love the USA.” I was almost surprised at such a complimentary song about the United States, in light of the political horror show unfolding here against many of the values that Young holds dear, particularly respect for the land and individual freedom. He does tackle those themes in the song “Stand Tall.”  “Stand tall for Earth, long may our planet live. Together we can win, stand tall for a woman’s right to be equal, doin’ all that she was born to do, let Earth become a rainbow people, blending all the colors as they choose. It’s the dawn of our day, the light of our way, wherever you go, whatever you do, we win when you and I stand tall.”

The song is as much about railing against the forces of oppression as it is about the importance of how to respond to it. There are plenty of jabs against the cult of non-science and the 6,000-year-old planet. 

In the song “When Bad Got Good,” Young repeats over and over the line “Lock ’em up,” a delicious coincidence in light of the fact that Michael Flynn, who led the anti-Hillary Clinton chant “Lock her up” at the Republican Convention, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI on the very same day “The Visitor” was released. Yes, Neil, lock ’em up indeed. 

The timing is similarly tragic in the environmental sense in light of Trump’s move to shrink the size of Bears Ears National Monument by more than 80 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by roughly 45 percent, the largest elimination of protected land in American history.  

Again, this shameful act of environmental callousness occurred the same week of the album’s release. Needless to say, “The Visitor” is a timely record. 

Overall, “The Visitor” is more coherent than Young’s 2015 album with Promise of the Real, “The Monsanto Years.” It’s a much easier and more pleasant record to listen to, with a nice mix of electric and acoustic songs. The beautiful 10-minute closer “Forever” is an instant classic in what is one of the great musical canons in both Canadian and American lore, and any other country in the word that has any lore in it.

“The Visitor” becomes the latest entry into Young’s online archive that he launched Friday called simply “Neil Young Archives” or “NYA.” The site chronicles Young’s entire life and career through music, video, photographs, journal entries, song notes, press, memorabilia, and anything and everything related to the life of the musician once nicknamed “Shakey” (also the title of a biography on Young and a pseudonym he used in the 1970s). 

“We have attempted to highlight the creative process and the creators,” Young wrote on the site. “The musical information found here is a work in progress, always growing and adapting as we find it. We have done our best to find all of the background pertinent to the music. If you have any more, please reach out to us with it. We are always looking.”

And it’s all free. Yes, you can now stream or watch all of the content on the site for free, using a high-fidelity proprietary codec Young developed called “X Stream Music” that streams at a far higher rate than the standard 320 kbps. 

You also can pay to download much of the music on the site. That said, Young might be walking away from a hefty sum of money by releasing the archive online. Bob Dylan recently sold his archive, which includes over 6,000 artifacts, for up to $20 million (it will be housed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, close to the Woody Guthrie archive). 

Young’s site is a bit wonky as it works out the kinks, but it is a truly remarkable portal into the mind and music of Neil Young. It is likely to be a seminal site as well as I imagine other artists will embark on similar archival efforts. I wouldn’t be surprised if Pearl Jam, who have long looked to Young as a sort of father figure, follows suit. 

Young ended the day Friday with a solo acoustic show for his hometown. You can watch the performance on Young’s Facebook page. It is well worth the visit as he rolls through many of his most beloved songs. He opens the show with “Comes a Time,” the title track from his 1978 record. “Comes a Time” contains my favorite Young lyric, and it describes perfectly the spirit of the Neil Young Archive.  

“We were right, we were giving, that’s how we kept what we gave away.”