Wouldn't it be nice to declare "Storytone" a late career masterpiece and to agree with some of the pre-publicity that this is Neil Young's "Blood on Tracks"? Sadly this is not the case. Whilst it is not the unmitigated disaster of "A Letter Home", this deluxe version of Storytone is a "game of two halves" which is rescued by the bonus acoustic set and almost drowned out by an orchestra. All credit to Neil Young for the "Rust never sleeps" ethic that remains his guiding principle with new albums laden with ideas and concepts. The problem is that it cannot disguise that at the age of 68 his song writing and especially his lyrical ability is on the slide (try to listen to "All those dreams" and not cringe).
Firstly when it comes to the "Storytone Orchestra" disc it just does not work. Songs like "Say Hello to Chicago" expose the limitations of Young's voice by taking on a swing record. It is painful and Tony Bennett need not lose any sleep. Others like "Like you used to do" and "I wanna drive my car" are sub standard sub blues workouts and just plain lazy. Listen to the lyrics "I wanna drive my car/Further and further down the road/I wanna drive my car". It sounds like Status Quo with horns. Finally the environmental protest song "Who is going to stand up" is full of well meaning cliches but also infused with a degree of hypocrisy. Neil Young often flies in between gigs by private jet, the most carbon intensive way to move humans next to space travel, and please do a search on his 5 star luxury tour bus. Yes its great that Young uses his position to expose essential causes not least his campaign against the wanton destruction of the Alberta tar sands but like Jackson Browne's recent protestations it can leave a strange taste in your mouth. How can someone sing about saving the planet one minute and then the next breath is shouting that "I gotta find some fuel" to drive his car "further and further down the road", surely Young notices the inherent contradiction?
Thankfully "Storytone" is saved by the acoustic set which is very good. Here songs like the excellent "Plastic Flowers" and "When I watch you sleeping" (which is vintage "Comes a Time" era Neil Young) show that there is life left in the old dog. Tracks like "Glimmer" that is sickly sweet with an orchestral backdrop works much better as a simple barstool piano ballad. Similarly the raw simplicity of "Tumbleweed" cuts the mustard although Young's lyrics are deteriorating not least lines like "life is full of little tricks/but we can always pick up sticks". This from the man that wrote "Revolution Blues"? Other songs like the sweet "I'm glad I found you" presumably refer to tumult of his private life of late where he announced in the summer that he was divorcing Pegi, his wife of 36 years and stepping out with Daryl Hannah. Good luck to him in relation to coming to terms with this heartbreak and all devoted fans would wish him happiness in his new relationship.
Ultimately "Storytone" is a mixed bag. It does contain a very good acoustic album although it is nowhere near past glories like "Harvest Moon" or "Comes a Time". Alternatively "Storytone's'' orchestra versions have that "listen once and put them away" quality. It appears a general rule that most great artists do their best work in the earlier part of their career although they punctuate this with late career defining masterpiece(s), Think Dylan's "Time out of Mind" or "Love & Theft", Leonard Cohen "Old Ideas" and more uniquely Bill Fay's "Life is People". Sadly Neil Young predictably unpredictable approach has yet to see any of his output over the past decade hit such high benchmarks. That said one of his better efforts was 2012's rocking 'Psychedelic Pill' which suggests in turn that its time for Young to replug the Gibson into a big amp, pick up the phone post haste and speak to Crazy Horse.
Review by Red on Black