hen does personal suffering excuse bad art? For a highly principled, tirelessly stubborn artist like Neil Young, I’d imagine the answer is simple. Never. Young takes such pride in his craft and seeks out such permanent, transcendent themes in his work that surely he’d be loath to relax the standards and requirements of greatness simply because someone had undergone private trials.
At least that’s what I tell myself so I don’t feel like so much of a dick for disliking the punchless, misty-eyed Prairie Wind, Neil’s first album since the death of his father and his own brush with mortality brought on by a brain aneurysm. As the latest chapter in Shakey’s still-unfinished bio it’s fascinating, a revealing glimpse into Young’s mind and heart in the midst of arguably his darkest hours. How the maverick genius reacts to these common but crippling problems of existence sheds new light on Neil Young the man, and even serves to cast his past works in a kinder, more humane hue.
That said, it’s hard to evince any real pathos, catharsis, or even enjoyment from a record that’s so relentlessly benign. All of Prairie Wind’s resonance is purely contextual, the compelling fact of a great artist seeking shelter in a desperate search for easy tranquility, while the music itself is an afterthought, the readiest, most familiar means to an end.
Young has flashed a sentimental streak his entire career, and the bonds of family and nature have always been essential to his art. At his best, however, this gentle hippie pining is made more poignant and powerful by Neil’s naked confrontation with those forces and feelings that stand between him and his bliss—spiritual isolation, drugs, nuclear doom—flailing away so heroically with his artlessly pointed words, eternally quavering voice, and that legendarily untamable guitar.
Sadly, the images here are safely neutered, or else so stripped of nuance they lose all tenability. “The Painter” features a pleasantly off-the-cuff melody, but the lyrical conceit couldn’t be moldier, Mother Nature as visaged by a fuzzy-headed bohemian. “No Wonder” is worse, an eco-friendly panorama lacking the existential dread of “After the Goldrush,” Young railing against a cardboard caribou-hunting senator, his guitar satisfyingly stormy but ultimately ineffectual.
After that pair of clunkers, however, the beauty of “Falling of the Face of the Earth” is a broadside. The album’s worthiest heir to 1992’s minor classic Harvest Moon (with Prairie Wind mistakenly being judged its successor in some circles), the song is nothing more than Neil’s voice stretching and breaking, his guitar lovely and uncluttered, loping along like an old friend. Later, Young will make explicit this relationship with “This Old Guitar,” and it winds up being the most believable and moving bond he takes up on the whole album, the artist struggling to accept his own cosmic inconsequence next to his art, recognizing the guitar doesn’t belong to him but merely waits for someone, anyone, to play it, Neil grudgingly adding, “I guess.”
All of Prairie Wind is concerned with connections, but rather than explore their pull, Shakey retreats into easy piety and cornpone Americana (er, make that Canadiana too I suppose). Hence the land “where buffalo used to roam,” (“Far From Home”), where it’s OK that we shot a few birds ‘cause “mother cooked them good and served them up (“No Wonder”), where boys fish off old bridges and old trains still roll out of the station (“It’s a Dream,” which wastes a truly affecting image of holding a lover after a nightmare). If that’s not bland enough for ya, there’s even a song about Elvis (“He Was the King”)—unlike Gillian Welch’s mesmerizing “Elvis Presley Blues,” there’s nothing here you couldn’t glean from watching the “Barbershop of Horrors” episode of The Simpsons.
Musically, Young’s acoustic efforts are rarely as interesting as his full-borne electric fuck-stomps, relying more on sturdy melodies and relaxed-fit tempos than the rawly impressive physicality of the everyman death struggles he wages with Ol’ Blackie in tow. Prairie Wind doesn’t necessarily hurt for melodies, with “Here for You” joining “It’s a Dream” and “Falling Off the Face of the Earth” as halfway-worthy entrants in Neil’s pantheon. However, the instrumentation as a whole is leaden, save for a few self-effacing moments like “Far From Home,” made worse by the cheaply obvious backing vocals that sap strength from almost every song except “This Old Guitar,” rescued by a wonderfully understated turn from Emmylou Harris.
Ultimately, there are just a few too many conclusions and destinations reached here for a Neil Young album. Too much of it feels like closing ranks and taking stock, actions that may have been all too necessary for the man himself, but for the inveterate iconoclast Neil’s always been on record, finding will never sound so good as searching.