At first glance, Americana, the first collaborative studio release in nine years from Neil Young and Crazy Horse, seems a bit contradictory as a project. In the first place, although Young’s music is ensconced in American culture, the man himself is Canadian, not American. Secondly, Neil Young is best known as a songwriter, and this is an album of covers. However, when I listen to it, it somehow feels like this is an album that needed to be made.
Let me just say that regarding the recording itself, if anyone besides one of the most noted icons in rock music had fronted it, they couldn’t have gotten away with it. Young, now 66, is showing his age vocally, and there are parts in the musical arrangements and sonic quality of Americana that are just plain sloppy, sounding at times more like a demo than a finished recording. But given Young’s ongoing interest in sound quality and technology (most recently working with Steve Jobs on a new high-quality digital format before Jobs’ passing), I have to believe the sloppiness in this case is on purpose. The songs on this record are all tunes that are deeply embedded in American folk and pop culture—songs like “Oh! Susanna,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” and “Clementine”—songs that many Americans grew up singing at one time or another. There’s something about the inconsistencies in the recording that make it accessible, and quite frankly, endearing. But like I said, if it were anyone but Neil Young and Crazy Horse, it probably would never have made it out of the studio.
As for the songs themselves, while some of them stay relatively close in arrangement to the originals (“Get A Job,” for example, retains much of its be-bop sound), Young and crew take plenty of liberties with other tunes. On the opening track, “Oh! Susanna,” the band opens with a classic folk-rock jam that sounds nothing like the original tune, and you wouldn’t even know you were listening to the old Stephen Foster song from the mid-1800s until you hear the lyrics. But it’s just this sort of thing that makes the record interesting. It makes you want to keep listening and find out what sort of spin they put on the other songs.
Oh, and that brings up an other apparent contradiction on the record: the closing track, “God Save the Queen.” Um, excuse me…this is a British song?? Perhaps this was included as a reminder that although this album is American-themed, Neil Young is, in fact, Canadian. And since America’s colonial roots are actually British, “God Save the Queen” technically passes as Americana. Okay, so we’ll give that one a pass.
With all its ironies, contradictions, and inconsistencies, Americana is somehow appropriate. If nothing else, it serves to remind us of the incredible impact Young has had on American culture over the years, and his homage to the American songbook comes across as sincere and authentic. Let’s just say that if any non-American citizen has earned the right to re-arrange and sing these tunes…it’s Neil Young.
ALBUM RATING: 3.5 Stars (out of five)