Disclaimer: Those looking for a brief description of the album will find what their looking for in the "Review Body" section. The section titled "Track Reviews" is meant only for those who want to read detailed descriptions of the songs, and they do not constitute the essence of this review. Lastly and most importantly, this review is not written in the point of view of a Neil Young fan.)
Overall Score: 4/5
Best song: “When You Dance”
Worst song: “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks”
You know, I really didn't expect to like this live album. It has a reputation of being done in the same style as Broken Arrow, which I found rather tedious, and what's more this is a double album. But, call me crazy, I actually like this. It seems to me that Year of the Horse is exactly what Broken Arrow wanted to be; it is a slow but thoughtful album where Neil plays his grungy guitar a lot and sings as though he's an old coot about to fall asleep. As I mentioned in the Broken Arrow review, this is not necessarily a bad sound for him!
The important thing that sets Year of the Horse apart from Broken Arrow is simply the songs on it. Broken Arrow was not Neil's finest example of songwriting; he seemed to repeat himself endlessly in a sort of weird, possibly unintentional attempt to grungify Philip Glass. Year of the Horse, on the other hand, is a live album where he gets to pull out songs from his extensive and impressive back catalog. So, he actually gives me songs that can and do hypnotize me. Thus, I extend my royalest of honors to thee, Neil.
If you listen not-that-closely at the beginning of the album's opening track, “When You Dance,” you can hear an audience member screaming “They all sound the same!” to which Neil replies “It's all the same song!” ...So there you go; this is the whole purpose of the album. Just to be one long, mid-tempo blur. But that's alright with me if he continues to pull out songs like the excellent “When You Dance!” That had a much better chance of actually taking me in its hazy mid-tempo trance than anything from Broken Arrow since it actually has a great melody, and those guitars don't get too grungy and ugly. “Barstool Blues,” similarly, was an excellent selection from way back in Zuma. It takes him 10 freaking minutes to finally resolve the thing, but I don't find myself itching for it to be over with as much as I would have thought. That song has a good melody, also, and the band finds quite a solid groove to keep it going without ever sounding like they were running out of steam.
Things start to get a little more tedious when he pulls out a version of that wannabe '80s power-ballad “When Your Lonely Heart Breaks.” (Holy moly, that guy is really reaching for some obscure stuff!) Of course it's better than the original, since that bass guitar is grittier and Neil comes in with a few noodles by the end, but it's not particularly more exciting than the original. I like this version of “Mr. Soul,” even though he performs it mostly the same way he did in his previous live album, Unplugged. It's a pleasurable song to listen to at least. He also happened to do a version of “Pocahontas” in Unplugged. Great song, but does he think nobody bought Unplugged, or something? How about a version of “Cinnamon Girl” or “Tonight's the Night?” Or was Neil afraid that people might actually want to hear these songs?
Since this album was done right after Broken Arrow, you can expect a fair amount of songs from there. There are three, and they sound exactly like the originals. Luckily, he spares us from some of that album's worst moments! “Slip Away” was quite a good song, and “Big Time” never makes a bad listen. Best of all, he brings us “Scattered,” which continues to have a killer riff! Another cool moment is the end when he resurrects “Sedan Delivery” from Rust Never Sleeps. That's the one song on here that rocks the most, so treasure the moment!!
Maybe I just like Year of the Horse, because Crazy Horse was finally beginning to lay off all those outlandishly freaky grunge guitar tones. I know I mention this in pretty much every review, but I still get a little bit nuts before listening to a new Neil Young grunge album considering that Arc raped my brain about a year ago. (Have I ever told you that listening to Arc is never a good idea?) Up until the very end, the insanely distorted guitar is kept mostly thrust into the background, which actually helps some of these songs keep their groove going for so long. So, Year of the Horse, I think, has that grunge sound just about right.
Would I recommend this to you? If you are a casual Young fan, probably not. You're going to have to assess how much you think you'll enjoy a double album's worth of mid-tempo songs featuring Neil's endless noodles. Granted, he's a kung-fu noodler, but I also understand that only a select population of music nuts actually go for that sort of thing.
When You Dance A
This album is full of mid-tempo blurs, but as long as the mid-tempo blurs sound like this one of Young's finest songs of all time, then this is quite alright with me! The band is still in grungy mode, but not in the super-distorted type that tormented me back in those Weld/Arc days. For the most part, Young just concentrates on playing the SONG. The guitars are appropriately dark and crunchy, and they sound wonderful. The obligatory extended guitar solo is weird, which is the way I like it. So, yes! This is a good performance of a good song!
Barstool Blues B+
This is of the better selections from Zuma, if I'm going to trust the review of that album I wrote about two years ago. And this was a mightily good selection for them to pick to drag on for nearly 10 minutes. (I mean, I'm not wild in the first place about 10-minute songs that repeat the same thing over and over and over...) But this is good! Again, the guitars sound excellent and don't give me Arc flashbacks whatsoever. I'm hypnotized fairly well (although I suppose it could have been better), and Young's guitar solo ain't bad either. Perhaps this is a slight waste of time to anybody who isn't in love with Neil Young for his guitar solos, but speaking as someone who isn't particularly in love with anything Neil Young, I can actually claim to enjoy this.
When Your Lonely Heart Breaks C+
Ah, I saw that I gave the original song a D. Probably being a bit harsh, since the melody is OK, but I objected mostly to its ultra-plain instrumentation and desperately dull pace. But this live setting improves it considerably. I listen to it now, and I think it's quite alright. It's just as slow paced and nearly as minimal as the original version, except of course that grittier and more grunge-tastic bass guitar. Young's lead vocals actually seem a little more sweet and angelic. ......I'm still gonna say that they could have done more to punch this up. Why not do some acoustic guitar strumming in there, for texture? ...I don't know. ...This continues to be way too freaking boring for my taste, but at least it was improved considerably.
Mr. Soul A-
Oh look! He's covering “Satisf..... Oh yeah. I forgot again. .......This is actually a pretty neat cover of that one Buffalo Springfield song. Again, it's a slowed down version of the song, and he mostly uses acoustic guitars. In that way, it's a lot like the version he did on Unplugged, which sort of goes to prove that he didn't actually change his act very much when he recorded that live set! I suppose the slow pace starts to get a tad boring after awhile, which gives me the idea that perhaps this doesn't hypnotize me as much as they were hoping. But anyway, this was a pretty neat song to begin with, and I like hearing it well enough!
Big Time B
Hi there! This is the first song on this live album that came directly from the album Neil Young was touring to support at the time. This isn't particularly better or worse than the original version. In fact, it sounds almost exactly the same to my ears. The distorted, grungy guitars are quite a bit fuzzier than anything that had been on here previously, which I suppose some fans might appreciate. Me, I prefer them when they are toned down! ...All in all, this ain't one of Neil's best songs, but it makes an OK listen for that entire seven and a half minutes.
Let's see, he did a version of “Mr. Soul” on his previous live album, and he also did a version of “Pocahontas.” These aren't even considered his most popular songs of all time, so why does he keep on bringing these things up? Maybe he thought Pocahontas from that recently released Disney movie was pretty dang good looking? I know I did! She was quite the cartoony babe! But why does he always seem to bring up Marlon Brando in his fantasy? .....That's a little weird. Anyway, I like this song, and I'll gladly listen to him perform a million different versions of it; I think it has a good melody and its calming pace is easy for me to sit back and let it soak in. Weirdly, that rumbling guitar they clutter in the background is sort of cool. I know, I'm supposed to hate that rumbling guitar after it violated me in Arc. Great guitar noodling, too. Neil's always good for that. Always. ...Well, 99.7% of the time.
Human Highway B
Yeah... I think the slowness of this album is really starting to get a whole of me. This is the sleepy acoustic song he did for his rather underwhelming Comes a Time. The melody is OK even though it sounds a lot like a boring 19th century hymn that people sing at funerals. Not bad if you're into that sort of thing, I suppose, but I'd rather listen to Elvis. And I don't really like Elvis that much.
Slip Away B+
Another selection from his most recent album, and it was one of the better songs for my money. Again, this is played a lot like the original version was, except Young-philes are probably going to notice differences in his guitar noodling. But like I really give a crap about trying to pick up subtle little differences in his guitar noodles!! I might have a lot of free time, but not that much free time! I'll just listen to him noodle along for nearly 11 minutes, and I ain't gonna cry foul.
This was also easily one of the best selections from his previous album! It's nice that he's playing mostly my favorite songs from there, and leaving dull stuff like “Music Arcade” and (let's face it) “Loose Change” by the wayside. This song actually has a pretty interesting riff and a memorable vocal melody with lyrics that somehow manage to grab me. Again, you're going to have to be some sort of Neil Young nut to find any major differences between this and the original. ...I mean a nut. It's done at exactly the same pace, and the exact same tone. Let me reiterate: NUUUUTTTTTTTT!
Danger Bird B
Pterodactyls, no doubt. It's a little known fact that Neil had a morbid fear of pterodactyls. The way they squawk and swoop down at you, and their poop is gigantic! ...What he certainly didn't have a fear of was taking part in these obscenely long versions of his songs. Granted, this is one of his better ones, from Zuma, so it makes a decent listen for sure. However, this is obviously going to be one of those moments that you'll like depending on how much you like 13 minutes worth of Neil Young playing an excessively slow song and doing a lot of ugly and grungy guitar solos over. You know exactly who you are. As for me... Eh!!! Not bad, but not particularly mind-blowing either. I do little else than space out through most of this. Then again, I'm guessing that was more or less the point of this whole album.
This was Neil Young's middle finger to the Geffen label back in the old days when he used to fight with record companies. Sort of a cool rebel song, I guess, and the melody is alright. Of course they grungify the heck out of it with all sorts of mad electric guitar solos. This one's so mad, in fact, that it sounds a little more like a self-destructing tape-recorder by the end with all those wild whizzes and whooshes and ends with a weird rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Not bad, I guess. Not particularly awe-inspiring, either. This isn't Neil's most inspired song, and I'm not getting a whole lot of joy out of listening to this one to be honest, but .................. eh, I never grow tired of listening to it. Even though it goes on for nearly seven minutes. (I must've accidentally lengthened my attention span between now and when I reviewed Broken Arrow!
Sedan Delivery A-
Yay! A good song from Rust Never Sleeps! (Not that “Pocahontas” wasn't a good song, but this was the second to last song from that album, which means it's ROCK 'N' ROLL!!! Yes sir, your reward for sitting through this entire double album beast was to finally get to a point where these guys actually *rock out*. I know, that's weird! Neil Young yells part of the lyrics, and does this weird Frankenstein electrocution thing with them at points. So, it's like somebody was trying to bring him back to life with all this electricity! Again, the grungy guitar starts to get a little bit crazy with this one, but I think that's what everybody is looking for in a Neil Young performance. This ain't bad.
I won't claim that Neil Young's 1997 live album is his finest one, unless you're a particular fan of mid-tempo songs that end up sounding pretty much the same. But I sort of found it nice anyway.
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Neil Young (1969) | Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) | After the Gold Rush (1970) | Harvest (1972) | On the Beach (1974) | Tonight's the Night (1975) | Zuma (1975) | American Stars 'N Bars (1977) | Comes a Time (1978) | Rust Never Sleeps (1979) | Live Rust (1979) | Hawks & Doves (1980) | Re-ac-tor (1981) | Trans (1982) | Everybody's Rockin' (1983) | Old Ways (1985) | Landing On Water (1986) | Life (1987) | This Note's For You (1988) | Freedom (1989) | Ragged Glory (1990) | Weld (1991) | Arc (1991) | Harvest Moon (1992) | Unplugged (1993) | Sleeps With Angels (1994) | Mirror Ball (1995) | Dead Man (1996) | Broken Arrow (1996) | Year of the Horse (1997) | Silver & Gold (2000) | Rock Road Vol. 1 (2000) | Are You Passionate? (2002) | Greendale (2003) | Prairie Wind (2005) | Living With War (2006) | Chrome Dreams II (2007) | Fork in the Road (2009) | Le Noise (2010)