Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Zuma by Neil Young (1975)

A very specific genre of albums invariably exists in every recording artist’s back catalogue: the “return to form”. Clichéd as it is, the label is often appended by record companies hoping to recover sales figures after an artist’s (less commercial) experimental whims. By this logic, Zuma breaks the downward trend that Neil Young’s career had taken after the success of 1972’s soft-country rock album Harvest, which contained the massive hit “Heart of Gold”. As Young would put it himself in the liner notes to the mid-career compilation Decade: “Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Travelling there became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw more interesting people there.” The three albums that followed; Time Fades Away (1973, out of print), On the Beach (1974) and Tonight’s the Night (1975) are known as the ditch trilogy, distinctly uncommercial, therapeutic howlings that were recorded in a haze of mourning, weed and tequila. Needless to say, their commercial appeal at the time is inversely proportional to their subsequent acclaim. These albums are widely cited as Young’s strongest work.

Illustration 1: The Pacific Coast Highway, just above Zuma Beach and Sea Level Drive, where Young resided while recording Zuma. [Courtesy of Google Maps' Streetview]

A direct cause for Young’s ditch trilogy, and particularly Tonight’s the Night was the passing of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten, who overdosed on heroin just after being laid off rehearsals for the Time Fades Away tour. The hole this left in the band meant that Young would collaborate with the other members on his subsequent albums, but not under the Crazy Horse moniker. Zuma marks the first time in 6 years that the Horse played under that name with Neil Young, thanks to the recruitment of Frank “Poncho” Sampedro as the second guitarist intrinsic to the Crazy Horse sound. Here then, do we encounter this fabled “return to form” for the band: the new line-up could continue where “Cowgirl in the Sand” left off in 1969. It must be conceded that Zuma shows a happier band, allowing for a less post-apocalyptic sound than its trilogy of predecessors. Young had finally finished with his wife, Carrie Snodgress. The relationship had fuelled the optimism of Harvest and the despair of On the Beach and the unreleased Homegrown (1975, unreleased). Feeling free, rejuvenated by his new band, Young and his entourage set up shop in the beautiful setting of a home on Malibu’s titular Zuma beach. The drug use continued, but in a more positive vein than on Tonight’s the Night. “Poncho’s such a cool guy. […] I went down to Ensenada with him and we had a great weekend. Drinking beer and tequila at Hussong’s Cantina. Got completely shitfaced. So drunk we could barely walk. My hair caught on fire. Jesus Christ.” Young would nostalgically recall some fifteen years hence. [Jimmy McDonough, Shakey, 490]

Illustration 2: Hair distinctly not on fire: Neil Young and Crazy Horse, 1975. Newcomer Sampedro second from right. [Source]

And yet, Zuma is more than Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere pt. II. Yes, it is a return to more conventional hard rock, with two guitars, bass and drums, but its soundscape and attitude is unique. The loose playing bears only a little resemblance to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, indebted as that album was to the sounds of the 1960s. This is an update of Crazy Horse in a mid-1970s setting. Rather than becoming as slick and bland as the Eagles, the Horse uses technical advances to sound more ragged and unadulterated than ever. Thankfully, this new set of songs is also arguably the strongest released by Young on a single album. “Don’t Cry No Tears” is an immediately cheery opener to the album, giving a clear indication of the new page being turned. What follows is one of the album’s two “epic” tracks, “Danger Bird”. Presumably somehow related to the album’s crude cover (a rough drawing that was immediately selected by Young before it could be further developed), the seven-minute track is an instant highlight, showcasing the new chemistry between the two guitarists. Beautifully recorded, and presented in nicely separated stereo, the rhythm and lead guitar by Sampedro and Young respectively create a delicately woven wall of sound that intertwines into a gloriously messy crunch. The loose extended jam is entirely led by guitars; drums and bass do not dictate the pacing and only follow. The rhythm guitar crunches along with the plodding bass, leaving Young’s lead free to add flourishes. The occasional soaring background vocals paint the picture of the bird flying despite its wings having “turned to stone”. “Pardon My Heart”, originally demoed with CSN, is the sole acoustic respite to the amplified onslaught on Zuma, a delicate track that would not have sounded out of place on On The Beach or Homegrown. Reflecting Young’s new single life in Malibu, “Lookin’ For A Love” is a remarkably cheerful self-examination, imagining himself moving on with life with a new lover. The flipside of the Malibu experience can be found on “Barstool Blues”, a drunkenly slurred (and not entirely un-Youngly screeched) up-and-down ramble about booze and women, backed by ragged guitar interplay.

Side two opens on a real standout track. “Stupid Girl” is menacing in its duality. It erases all memories of the Stones’ 1966 song and Mick Jagger prancing around Carnaby Street in striped drainpipes and winkle pickers. Ostensibly about Joni Mitchell, guitars dominate this track, creating a seesaw rhythm and an offbeat rhythm lick. Young’s vocals are double-tracked; screeching high and threateningly low. “Drive Back” is a remarkably unremarkable stomp, the kind of macho posturing best left to spandex-wearing lunatics. A centrepiece of the album, “Cortez the Killer” is a fan favourite, and the second of the “epic” tracks. Its introduction lasts some three minutes before the vocals start (just like Bowie’s Station to Station, released the next year). The track fades out around the seven minute mark, before the narrative can reach a proper arc. This is due to the fact that the recording engineer had run out of tape as the band played. “Through My Sails” serves as the album’s epilogue, as if the credits roll by accompanied by CSNY’s soothingly harmonized near-a cappella nursery rhyme.

Illustration 3: "Cortez the Killer" performed by Young and Crazy Horse, 1978. From the Rust Never Sleeps film, 1979.

Young would tour briefly with Crazy Horse, presumably a spectacular show, though with little documentation. Hopefully the imminent second volume of the Archives will shed light on this period. [Update 31/7/10: It has been announced that a 1976 concert recorded in Japan will be released as part of the Archives 2 set.] Young would unexpectedly shapeshift, leaving Crazy Horse without its leader for the umpteenth time. He joined Stephen Stills for an unremarkable album, and a disastrous tour that Young had to escape from midway in 1976. Zuma represents a career highlight; it feels fresh thanks to the new blood in the band, it closes off a difficult period for Young (no matter how productive) and it delivers sensational country-hard-rock in a dense package.