Album: Neil Young

Prairie Wind, Reprise
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The Independent Culture

Many have melodies which recall Young's Goldrush/Harvest heyday, and the album generally seems coloured by a poignant blend of affection and regret for the simpler, more secure world of his childhood, when the open prairies around his hometown of Winnipeg perhaps represented the unbounded dreams and ambitions that first helped his imagination take flight. The title-track contains a lovely metaphor of something being "like a new car sitting there in your old garage", which seems to sum up the singer's relationship to his past: hankering after the old ways, but acknowledging the need to keep the latest aids - both equipment and attitudes - in reserve to face the future.

So although the overall manner is wistful and nostalgic, with Young conjuring up images of things like "a train roll[ing] out of a station that was really something in its day", and recalling youthful memories of those "good old family times that left a big mark on me", there's a questioning edge to many songs that undercuts what seem to be the firm foundations of his heritage. Thus are the scattered recollections in "He Was The King" not so much of Elvis himself as of the Elvis myth; while the instrument celebrated in "This Old Guitar" as "a messenger in times of trouble, and times of hope and fear" is, he admits, not his to keep, he's "just taking care of it": even a trusted accomplice like this might play a different tune in another's hands.

By the album's close, Young's even bringing his scepticism to bear on his religion, pondering in "When God Made Me" the old theological problem of whether God saves only those of the "correct" faith. It's a curious, paradoxical situation rarely encountered in comparable reflections on history, heritage and memory: the deeper Neil buries himself in the past, the less certain he seems about anything. This dichotomy is repeated throughout the album - in the gap separating art and reality in "The Painter", in the gulf between rulers and ruled in "No Wonder", in the conflicting urges to both hold a loved one and allow them freedom in "Here For You".

The result is Young's most thoughtful, considered work in well over a decade, a long overdue return to form by an artist whose career has often traded on vacillation, in both its musical and its socio-political aspects.