Neil and the Horse swing in and out of time on Barn
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
I’m putting myself in a specific place. Or, more specifically, the song is.
There’s a clearing in an otherwise wooded area. There’s a thump from a drum kit and its accompanying bass guitar, slightly delayed. Two guitars are weaving and blending, loud and dirty but not hurried. And through this dusky setting, Neil Young’s voice pokes through the blinds:
“Stars in the sky
They only know we see them there”
I don’t know what that means, but feels right. It’s the kind of line I can spend a year listening to on repeat. And that is the pervasive vibe throughout Barn, a record that feels of the moment and also misplaced in time.
Young has been incredibly busy this past decade. This is his 10th full-length studio album since 2010, at least, along with a mountain of archival projects overseen in that time, but this is the first since the world turned even more upside-down than usual in 2020. There are lyrics in here that reflect that, but there’s also a sense of urgency. Rather than call on Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, or another band of crack Nashville musicians, he felt he needed Crazy Horse. And from there, he took them to the restored barn studio, a stone's throw from where they recorded the Colorado album in 2019.
It’s almost too easy: Crazy Horse, back in the barn, back with Neil, etc., etc. But instead of easy puns, the result is music with a true warmth. Nothing feels forced or hackneyed, nothing sticks out when it should be settled. Instead, there’s a balance of duty and passion; a blend that’s more than welcome.
Of course, there are hyper-specific references to our current moment, some that might not wear as well over time. But there are many more that should age comfortably. Both sentiments exist on the opening “Song of the Seasons.” There’s a passing glance at “masked people walking everywhere,” but earlier, the more timeless notion that, “I see nature makes no mistake.” It’s a song about two people living while everything changes and everything moves, about humanity working together to make it through the latest set of challenges.
And this song provides a curious glimpse of the latest iteration of Crazy Horse. With guitarist Frank Sampedro retired, Nils Lofgren has jumped back on the saddle alongside the inimitable rhythm section of Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina. Lofgren accompanies this track on accordion, and contributes piano later, in addition to his own unique phrasings on guitar. And Talbot and Molina are no lumbering giants here — they’re subtle and graceful, anchoring the tune while hanging in the background.
Though it should be noted that Crazy Horse can still light it up, as on “Human Race” or “Welcome Back,” where the guitars are dialed up and the distortion is pushed well into the red, the message here comes through on the sympathetic nature of the band. Talbot and Molina are always there, thumping away behind Young at just the right loping gait as they’ve been for more than 50 years. But this isn’t the band that pulverized its way through Ragged Glory or Year of the Horse. With the addition of Lofgren, Young has a utility player at his side he’s missed since the passing of Ben Keith. Lofgren has swooped in and out of Young’s orbit for just about as long as anyone (outside of Stephen Stills), and he lends his own unique point of view to these songs.
If this latest configuration of Crazy Horse spent the recording of 2019’s Colorado getting their sea legs back, Barn sees the band swinging freely after more than a year indoors. “Welcome Back” might have been another volume-splitter in years past, but instead of hammering in the rhythm on guitar, Lofgren plays jazzy accents in the jams behind Young’s leads. The band rolls on through the song and seemingly through the years, creating an atmosphere that is, again, equal parts at ease and prepared to blow to pieces. Throughout, every musical move, especially Lofgren’s counterpoint to Young’s soloing, almost eerily punctuate the lyrics: “Welcome back, welcome back, it’s not the same.”
And it’s not the same. It’s not 1969 or 1976 or 1990 or 2012, certainly. And this album reflects that. I don’t know if we’re at a point where we’ll see a knock-down, drag-out classic from Young again. More than fifty years should be enough of a track record to know that Neil will move from project to project at his own pace, as his muse dictates. Some of it will confound, some of it will annoy, some of it might sound stilted or unfinished. But as long as he’s working, there will probably be something worth the time it takes to listen.
On Barn, Neil Young has one of his better collections of the past decade. There’s a warm ambiance that hangs over the music, with Young in a relatively strong voice and playing with moments of true passion. Whether or not this hangs with his massive back catalog is secondary: this is an excellent record in its own right. Sometimes music just needs to exist. As expected, Neil knew when to pull the Horse into the barn and make just the right kind of racket at just the right, specific time.
E-mail Nick Tavares at email@example.com