Americana is Neil Young’s first album with ultimate garage band Crazy Horse in twelve years but it sure doesn’t sound like it. Some things are eternal, I suppose. As soon as the first track, “Oh Susannah,” got rolling on the old turntable I felt like I was putting on a favored sweatshirt neglected for – well, for about a dozen years. It’s comfortable as hell. So let me get that out of the way. Crazy Horse sounds exactly the same as ever, which means they sound excellent; everyone’s obviously having a blast and Mr. Young’s lovely and lyrical guitar leads flutter through the proceedings as usual like no one else. This is grungy garage-rock at its finest. Did you expect anything less?
But what are these songs, exactly, that sound so familiar and yet so alien? For their first album since 2003’s Greendale, Mr. Young and Crazy Horse have taken an interesting approach: the lyrics are cribbed from tried and true well-known songs in the American folk and popular tradition, while the majority of the melodies and accompanying chords have been rewritten and run through the Crazy Horse grunge machine. This proves to be a mostly entertaining game, doesn’t it, Roberta? For instance, “O Susannah” retains Stephen Foster’s lyrics (but not all of them, clever readers) but the song is one-hundred percent genuine American bluesy garage music. It’s an ambitious experiment that works well and the other songs do too. Not all of these songs are those that might spring to mind when you hear the word Americana: the Silhouettes 1957 doo-wop song “Get A Job” is here, as is a version of “God Save the Queen,” which, to be fair, has a verse of “America the Beautiful” grafted onto it. The lyrics, in fact, are probably more comprehensive here than they are in the versions of the songs we know better – Mr. Young has stated that he reinserted many of the less familiar verses in songs like “This Land Is Your Land” to emphasize elements of darkness and despair (as well as the political overtones, which is a nice subversive touch). And the titles are unfamiliar, too: “Jesus’ Chariot” takes its lyrics from “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain,” “Tom Dula” is based on “Tom Dooley,” and so on. The overall effect of all this messing around is that everything feels warped and shifted through time and across the American expanse, like an alternative history of American music. I rather like it.
My loyal readers will know I am no great fan these days of folk music and I found myself pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed Mr. Young’s experiment so much. It’s hard to make Crazy Horse sound rotten, and the idea of re-crafting traditional songs in an electric format in this matter would be sufficiently novel to amuse me even had it failed; it is however, a great success. I would recommend this to other people who are sick of associating folk music with acoustic guitars or dusty museums. The folk are alive, friends. We’re all right here.