It takes about three seconds to work out that you’re listening to a Neil Young record. Young heaves a huge slab of grungy guitar noise into view, where it’s quickly followed by banjo and barrelhouse piano. This wilfully perverse attitude is pretty typical of the man who was once sued by his record company for making records that didn’t sound enough like Neil Young… He’s not governed by market forces or the current trends in audio production. He makes records he wants to make. Sometimes lots of people like them. Sometimes lots of people don’t. He makes them anyway. “The Visitor” is his latest and on this one, he’s backed by the snappily named Promise of the Real. He could be backed by McFly, Maroon Five or Kraftwerk – his records will always sound like Neil Young Records, regardless of what his record label may say.
He’s not happy and it’s mainly Donald Trumps fault. “And I’m living with a gameshow host, who has to brag and has to boast” sings Neil in “Almost Always” – a tune which he could have recorded at almost any stage of his career. Heralded by his trademark lonesome harmonica, acoustic guitar and a simple electric guitar figure, it’s a low-key gem on a very strong album. Over the course of ten tracks we get a diverse selection of material, even by Neil Young’s standards. The first three tunes lull you into false sense of security as they’re the kind of thing you’d expect from Uncle Neil. Then it gets a bit…off piste. “Stand Tall” is an anthemic, funk tune. Imagine that. From Neil Young. Fortunately, a trademark, unhinged guitar solo reminds us who’s responsible. That’s followed by “Change of Heart” a mid-tempo country tune with a whistled refrain and some tasty mandolin licks. Still with it…?
You can always rely on Young for an anthem, and on “The Visitor” we get “Children of Destiny”. Once we get past the rather cheesy title, we’re greeted by a huge production. It sounds like Young has drafted in the marching band from Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” and the chorus of “Les Miserables” to add their weight to an epic. “Stand up for what you believe. Resist the powers that be”, he sings. It’s a well-worn theme, but it’s done with such disarming sincerity, you can’t help but be swept along by it. By the end of the album, Young is running out of steam a little and “When Bad Got Good” sounds like a Tom Waits pastiche and the album closer “Forever” takes a three-minute song and pulls it out to over ten. It sounds a little like “Inca Queen” from his 1987 Crazy Horse album, “Life”. Only not as good. And longer.
If you were a cynic, you might think that this is exactly the sort of record that you would expect a child of the sixties to make. Of course, he’s anti-Republican. He’d be against anyone in power, surely? The great thing about “The Visitor” is that Young does more than rattle his sabre, in the way that Juliana Hatfield did on her anti-Trump magnum opus of this year, “Pussycat” – Young is more measured and reflective. He’s angry, but he’s “working on solutions” as he says in “Forever”. Of course, it’s a protest album, but he gets all the bluff and bluster out of the way pretty early on. Then the conversation starts.
Another year. Another Neil Young album. It’s unfair to compare 2017 Neil Young with “Harvest” era Neil Young, but consciously or subconsciously, we always will. Where does “The Visitor” rank in his seemingly endless back catalogue? It’s a bit too early to say, but 2017 Neil Young can hold his head high.