Artist: Neil Young and Crazy Horse
Released: July 8th, 2022
Highlights: Quit, Goin’ Home, Gateway of Love, How Ya Doin’?
When recording their work, musical artists often struggle with deciding the point in which a song is ready to be immortalized in a piece of media. Some prefer to stick to early takes of the material, when the tunes are raw and spontaneous; others choose to labor tirelessly over the tracks in order to polish their rough edges, try different approaches, and bring forth the very best version of the compositions; and there are also, of course, those who shackle themselves to neither method, opting to instead feel what is more appropriate for each individual song. Ultimately, though, this is a matter to which there is no exact answer, as there are plenty of examples of albums that have been ruined because they were overcooked in the studio as well as various records that could have used an extra layer of care to either further highlight the value of what they contained or simply raise the quality of the material to a professional level.
As far as that discussion goes, Neil Young has always been a bit of a radical. A firm believer in the lightning in a bottle that is captured by initial takes, he has been both lauded and criticized due to his haphazard approach to recording. His greatest classic, “Tonight’s the Night”, was powered by a reckless spontaneity that went as far as including bum notes, out of tune vocals, and performances that miraculously reached their end despite the fact everyone present in the room was clearly quite high on alcohol and drugs. This unedited looseness also vitally contributed to the greatness of other peaks in his catalog, such as “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere”, “On the Beach”, “Zuma”, “Ragged Glory”, and “Psychedelic Pill”. On the other hand, his inability to sit with a song for too long has also led to criticism and duds: some claim Young hires the best musicians around only to have them play utterly basic parts since he does not give them the time to develop their magic; and especially in the late part of his career, many have been the cases in which albums that obviously needed a little more work were shoved out the door.
This duality makes it impossible to determine whether Neil is right to work in such a manner: sometimes he is, and occasionally he is not. There is no absolutely correct answer. Yet, it is safe to say most music fans would not change much about how Young operates; after all, nobody would want to eliminate an undercooked dud like “Peace Trail” at the cost of robbing “Tonight’s the Night” of its defining ramshackle spirit. Therefore, not many would disagree that this philosophy has yielded positive results that far outweigh the negative ones. Neil’s 2022 release, “Toast” further reconfirms that notion, and it does so in a way that is specially illustrative of how putting too much work on songs can sometimes ruin them.
Like “Homegrown”, which came out in 2020, “Toast” is not a contemporary work, but an archival release of sessions that went unpublished at the time. And, once more, this is a package that mixes tunes that would go on to come out in another form with songs that had never seen the light of day. In the case of “Toast”, it contains three tracks that should come off as new to the ears of many fans and four cuts that would be reworked and put out one year later in 2002’s “Are You Passionate?”. To those in the loop, perhaps that is not such an appealing perspective: the compositions of “Homegrown” that were known by Young’s audience were stone-cold classics, which in turn made the unreleased album have a revered status; meanwhile, “Are You Passionate?” is one of the singer-songwriter’s most maligned works, so in theory the idea of listening to an album mostly made up of bad cuts should not be all that exciting. But this is where “Toast” brings its twist.
As it turns out, “Toast” reveals those four tunes are not inherently bad: they were just cooked to a point that caused their qualities to be nearly totally eroded. In “Are You Passionate?”, Neil dabbled into soul music by pairing up with one of the genre’s most iconic bands, Booker T. & the M.G.’s. Yet, although the instrumental performances were by all means excellent, the partnership did not truly gel. Young seemed awfully out of place trying to imitate the mannerisms of soul singers, the compositions did not suit the style too well, the mellow vibe made the good lyrics describing romantic feelings of joy and pain sound corny, and the proceedings emerged as contrived. In “Toast”, contrarily, Neil is right at home. Joined by his favorite partners in crime, Crazy Horse, he executes these songs with passion and ragged glory in relaxed mid-tempo jams, and as the tunes’ melodic moments are reached, the members of his legendary backing band step up to the plate to beautify them with their signature country-tinged harmonies.
The usually long length of the tracks, the plodding pace, the charmingly clumsy licks and solos, the nasty distortions, and the melodic softness could cause one to think “Toast” is a work that can be described as Neil Young and Crazy Horse by the numbers. To a point, that evaluation is not incorrect; and to the delight of fans, this is yet another record that proves that when he is accompanied by his longtime collaborators, Neil is almost guaranteed to produce something of value. But “Toast” stands out from other records attributed to that partnership because there are blatantly strong romantic undertones running through it: decorated by a catchy sweet solo that is frequently used to good effect, “Quit” is sung in a nigh falsetto and is punctuated by a female backup singer who repeats “Don’t say you love me”; “How Ya Doin’?”, released in “Are You Passionate?” as “Mr. Disappointment”, is driven by longing and painful love; and “Boom Boom Boom”, which would become “She’s a Healer”, is a blues-based dirge written in celebration of a lover’s power.
This romanticism may show that Young intended, from the get go, to give these songs another treatment or perhaps it is this nature that led him to think soul music was an adequate direction. Nevertheless, the point remains that all of these tracks sound better under the guidance of Crazy Horse, and even “Goin’ Home”, which appeared in “Are You Passionate?” in pretty much the same state as it is heard here, gains value because it feels more at home when standing beside these rocking tunes. In addition, the previously unreleased songs that “Toast” introduces to the world are all of respectable quality: “Standing in the Light of Love” is a pounding barn burner with a searing lead riff working as its hook; “Timberline” hints at being a mindless rocker that will go off the rails, but then it takes a delightfully emotional turn as it reaches its chorus to flirt with gospel via lyrics and surprising keyboards; and “Gateway of Love” is a ten-minute Crazy Horse masterpiece, oozing melodic beauty from every corner while delivering all guttural guitar nastiness that is expected from the band.
Thanks to that, “Toast” is an album that clicks in multiple ways. At its most basic, it is a very worthy addition to the Neil Young and Crazy Horse discography. However, it is also a welcome release for many other reasons: it rescues three songs from being utterly forgotten by presenting them in much better versions; it allows another trio of tracks to escape from Young’s apparently very musically rich vaults; and it reconfirms that the man’s decision to work haphazardly and bet on early takes is not off the mark. Because more often than not, there is great magic to be captured as a band is still trying to grab a total hold on fresh songs, and if too much consideration is poured into the process, a lot of beauty may end up being lost.
I really, really enjoyed this one Matt, I don’t know whether never having heard the Booker T LP helps this. I did the very late night vibe of the thing.
Neil keeps releasing great archive stuff – he’s mopping up about 25% of my wages each month! I have just bought his re-release of ‘ElDorado’ this week, which is the first one of his I’ve been a bit disappointed in for a while.