Just hearing the words "concept record" sometimes sends music critics and fans running. From the Who, Pink Floyd and the Kinks to the Drive-By Truckers, concept records can produce occasional highs, but more often result in sonic chronicles of overblown pretension. That Neil Young would choose to make one of these records is no surprise, and fans of rock's most quixotic performer are used to his erratic muses -- and in fact embrace them.
This addition to the troubled concept-album canon finds Young creating the coastal town of Greendale and its first family, the Greens. There's cantankerous, opinionated Grandpa (surely a Young stand-in), drug-dealing/cop-killing cousin Jed, beautiful teen activist Sun and failed psychedelic painter Earl. Oh, and the Devil himself also apparently lives in Greendale. (Wonder if he's listed in the phone book?) Young's Web site is an essential post-listening visit with story explanations, family trees and even a map of the city.
Backed by longtime collaborators Crazy Horse (actually two-thirds of the group -- rhythm guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro is absent), the material is hit-and-miss. The boogie shuffle of "Double E," the rough "Leave the Driving" and the melancholy "Bringin' Down Dinner" all stand out. "Carmichael," which details community reactions to the policeman's death, wonderfully and effectively uses the dialogue-as-lyric approach, which Young uses throughout. But tracks like "Devil's Sidewalk," "Grandpa's Interview" and record closer "Be the Rain" are filled with awkward proclamations and plodding melodies. Horse drummer Billy Talbot's monotonous thumping grates at times, but Young's extended, dirty and fuzzy solos, intros and codas add an edge.
Greendale's main problem is that Young veers from simply telling the family's story to crassly using them to declaim grand statements about such wildly diverse topics as (all together now) the planet's ecology, corporate greed, the Internet and the sins of the media. By the time Grandpa drops dead of a heart attack and Sun Green elopes to Alaska with a man named (no joke) Earth Brown, we're waiting for Sting and Al Gore to drop in and sing some harmonies.
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Though far superior to Are You Passionate?, his last, ill-advised foray into soul, Greendale remains an ambitious, if flawed, bit of storytelling. But Neil Young's next record could find him fronting an all-child klezmer band who sing punk through voice-boxes, and it would still be the most interesting entry in that genre.