Of all the 60s legends who took baffling artistic detours through the decade Kris Kristofferson described as “shipwrecked,” Neil Young’s was by far the most fascinating. And Lord knows there were some “detours.” By the time Landing On Water came out in ’86, Dylan continued to languish in the alcoholic aftermath of a schizophrenic religious identity that produced material both interesting and intolerable (mostly the latter—and if you doubt that for one second, give a listen to Slow Train Comin’s “When You Gonna Wake Up” and let me know how you feel in the morning. Typical side effects include severe nausea, blurred vision, and sudden death.) The Stones, for their part, long-before settled into a steady offering of McSingles on albums they recorded with gritted teeth from opposite ends of a studio, tolerating one another only out of greed to produce records like Dirty Work, an album full of furiously delivered songs whose titles reflect the animosities of the band—“Too Rude,” “Had it With You.” You get the picture.
After responding to the epic success of the Rust albums with characteristically unpredictable forays into inaccessible pseudo-punk (Reactor) and rickety folk meanderings (Hawks & Doves)–exchanging main stream acceptance for the worship of anonymous new wave dorks in the underground clubs of New York and L.A.–Neil Young journeyed to places few of his fans were willing to go: the electronica beats of Trans which, we later learned, featured electronically distorted vocals that emerged from attempts at communicating through a computer with his son Ben, a quadriplegic suffering from cerebral palsy (Neil’s charitable efforts to defeat the condition are legendary and ongoing.)
In retrospect, the 80s are as legendary a period in Neil Young’s career as his 70s heyday–not because the music was great, but precisely because it wasn’t, culminating in the now-infamous lawsuit David Geffen filed against Young for making music that didn’t sound Neil Young enough (Geffen won.) Many like to call Landing on Water Neil’s worst album, but that distinction–if we really must make it–belongs to the morbidly produced Everybody’s Rockin, the musical middle finger to Geffen Records Neil recorded a few years earlier. While Springsteen and Joel discovered new voices with 50s nostalgia pieces like “Pink Cadillac” and “Uptown Girl” around the same time, Neil’s flirtation with similar curiosities reflected, if anything, a voice that had become all but irretrievable.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse: “Sleeps With Angels”
It is hardly a surprise, then, that Landing on Water further exemplifies the erratic artistic indulgences Young favored at the time, with its characteristically grungy licks and riffs laid over a jarring and misguided cacophony of synthesized drums and rhythms. It isn’t just that the album sounds dated in 2008; the production is so insular that it was destined to sound dated before the year of its release came to a close.
And yet, despite all this, Landing on Water contains three essential performances that open-minded fans will learn to appreciate. “Hippie Dream”–with its moving eulogy for the bygone days of flower power–is a biting indictment of an era he helped define. “Another flower child / goes to seed / in an ether-filled room / of meat hooks. / It’s so ugly, / so ugly,” Young sings of his cocaine-addled brother in arms, David Crosby, a disturbingly prophetic anticipation of the liver transplant Crosby would receive nine years later. Other tunes like “Drifter” and “Touch the Night” showcase a Neil Young who almost finds his groove amid the album’s synth-laden idiosyncrasies.
These songs are treasures of an artistic vision stretching to fathom the boundaries of its expression, and the ambition of the material it produced at that time is, to my ears, every bit as beautiful as Young’s best work. It may not always have sounded great—in fact, it usually strained just to sound listenable. But Neil’s refusal to look away from less familiar artistic terrain is exactly the kind of edginess his reputation is founded on, and it is the good fan who understands that glories like Sleeps With Angels, Freedom and Ragged Glory could not have been possible without the misadventures that preceded them.