Neil Young and Crazy Horse – “Ragged Glory” (1990)

August 24, 2008 at 7:09 pm (Kurt Loder, Reviews & Articles)

In one of Kurt Loder’s last album reviews for Rolling Stone (he was already working for MTV at this point) – an excellently written critique of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s then-current album from Sept. 20, 1990. (I found one mistake in this review though – he states that this was Crazy Horse’s first album with Neil in a decade – that’s not true – they had just made the album Life together in 1987)…  
 

Neil Young’s Guitar Ecstasy

 

I guess Neil Young is the king of rock & roll. I don’t see anybody else on the scene standing anywhere near this tall nowadays.

The title of Young’s new record aptly encapsulates its charms. Nine of the ten tracks on Ragged Glory – an instant Neil classic – were recorded at his ranch in Northern California. I paid a brief journalistic visit to this place some years back, and it’s a huge sprawl of land. At the heart of it, Neil had erected a fully equipped, open-air stage upon which he and his band buddies would clamber of an evening and crank up their amps. In the middle of a spread the size of Connecticut – and they still got complaints from the neighbors.

This album sounds like it was recorded on that stage on a really good night.

It’s loose and wild, and God knows it’s loud, and it soars gloriously from one raving cut to the next. There are no acoustic ballads. Everything – even the ecological hymn that concludes the record – is intensely electric. Young launches into “Country Home,” the opening track, with his guitar jacked up to about thirty and leaves it nailed there for the next hour. He solos all over the place – great gouts of railing crunch and squall – and he solos at length: Two of the tracks on the album (two of the best, actually, “Love to Burn” and “Love and Only Love”) clock in at more than ten minutes each. (There are also a couple of minutes’ worth of long feedback and fade-outs.) And booting him along throughout, for the first time on record in more than a decade, is Crazy Horse (guitarist Frank Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina), maybe the last great garage band of our time and definitely Neil’s greatest group.

Ragged Glory is, in fact, a monument to the spirit of the garage – to the pursuit of passion over precision, to raw power and unvarnished soul. Neil and the boys even do a nuclear assault on an actual garage classic – the R&B chestnut “Farmer John,” rendered in the style of the Premiers’ 1964 surfer-stomp version. This is a frankly dopey song, and aware that its lumbering, bedrock-punk riff is the whole point, the band proceeds – with what might be called malicious glee – to pump it up into an awesome sonic juggernaut that’s relentless and mesmerizing.

Yes, kids, here’s a guy grizzled enough to be your own quaint, ex-hippie dad, and he and his equally antique pals are blasting out a tune called “Fuckin’ Up” that would singe the curls of any corporate-metal act currently on the charts. It really is inspiring. But Young is no arrested adolescent. The stature of his music has always derived from his ability to use the simple forms of his root influences – folk, rock, country and R&B – as a vehicle for his emotional candor. And on Ragged Glory, the emotions he probes are those of a man going on forty-five years old – a man for whom rock & roll still resonates as truly as it did in his youth, but a man with a lot of mileage on his meter as well and with memories of what now seem more shining times.

In the offhandedly exquisite “Mansion on the Hill” – a country lope buried under a truckload of overamped guitars – Young looks back on the halcyon days of the Sixties as a youthful paradise frozen in time (“Psychedelic music fills the air/ Peace and love live there still”). But he’s no sap. He knows those days are irretrievable, at least for his generation; that “possessions and concessions” change people over the years; and that – as he sings on the track that follows (a song with a melody and tone seemingly modeled in part on Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages”) – “we never had to make those deals/In the days that used to be.”

Young also ponders his own latter-day political retrenchment and its appparently corrosive effect on old friendships: “Ideas that once seemed so right/Now have gotten hard to say/I wish that I could talk to you/And you could talk to me.”

And in the dark, guitar-charged “Love to Burn,” he presents a harrowing scene from a collapsing marriage: “Why’d you ruin my life?/Where you takin’ my kid?/And they hold each other, sayin’/How did it come to this?'”

The album is hardly despondent. There’s hope in the near-psychedelic “Love and Only Love” and the earthy “Over and Over” (“I love the way you open up when you let me in”) and a sense of simple contentment in the melodious “Country Home.” And the twang-fueled “White Line,” a ramblin’-man toss-off with echoes of Deja Vu-era Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, is a tribute to the eternal possibilities of a few trashy chords and a heart full of high spirits.

But Ragged Glory reaches its peak on the blistering and supremely rueful “Fuckin’ Up,” with its lacerating riff and squealing, bucketful-of-eels guitar leads and Neil – in his usual microtonally adventurous vocal style – wailing what must surely be a universal lament: “Why do I keep fuckin’ up?”

At the end of the album, Young turns to face the future with “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem),” a stark and gorgeous number recorded live at the Farm Aid IV benefit concert, in Indiana, earlier this year, with additional harmonies recorded by the band later at Young’s ranch. A straight folk-choral item in structure, this potentially dippy paean to the planet gathers grace from its stately melody and draws muscle from Young’s lone, howling guitar accompaniment – stating the theme in a Hendrix-like blare, then rumbling on below the verses to the gently cautionary conclusion: “Respect Mother Earth, and her healing ways/Or trade away our children’s days.” It’s an unexpected and stirring end to an exhilarating album of hard guitar rock. Ragged Glory is a great one, from one of the greats.

Kurt Loder

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1 Comment

  1. Neil Young Ragged Glory (1990) « Classic Rock Review said,

    […] From Beatpatrol.wordpress.com […]

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