That the first Chrome Dreams, which was never officially released, included some of Neil Young’s greatest songs (“Pocahantas,” “Powderfinger,” “Like a Hurricane,” “Look Out For My Love”) sets the bar incredibly high for its sequel. Luckily for Young, his fans are among rock’s most forgiving and patient listeners; check online for the creepily passionate Trans enthusiasts. After enduring Young’s last four studio albums (which, with the exception of the lovely but admittedly tame Prairie Wind, were all fully constructed mood pieces, every song flowing into the next and sounding more or less like one another, and none sounding all that good to begin with), one is bound to overzealously announce Chrome Dreams II as a return to form. Indeed, it’s a return to a time when Young albums felt like ingenious mixtapes—where Crazy Horse tracks, Stray Gators tracks, and duets with Linda Rondstadt intermingled without being jarring in the least.
That mélange is in full swing as soon as Chrome Dreams II opens: The dopey eco-ballad “Beautiful Bluebird” is followed by the funky “For the Turnstiles”-shuffle of “Boxcar,” followed by the nearly 20-minute-long jam “Ordinary People.” All three tracks date back to the 1980s and will be recognizable to Young fanatics, but “Ordinary People” is the most well known and sought after of the three. Since the This Note’s For You period, it’s long been a bootlegger’s fave. Like much of Young’s ’80s output, it’s an angry, sprawling diatribe about the problems of the inner city, Reaganomics, materialism, and so forth, dressed up as an apocalyptic vision. The song is compelling—thanks in no small part to the presence of the Blue Note Horns—but it’s 15 minutes too long and 19 years too late. Some critics have quipped about the song’s reference to “Lee Iacocca people,” but I’m more struck by Young’s imagining of “people [getting] drugs to the street all right/Trying to help the people.” I’m not saying it’s for better or worse, but pop culture’s portrayals of drug use has become far more realistic in the nearly two decades since this song was written: Think Eminem’s descriptions of vicodin, or the representations of crack use on The Shield or in Half Nelson. The song’s G-rated images of “dealers” and “the streets” captures the outrage that followed the crack explosion of the ’80s, but it also captures the cluelessness of that era’s white liberal indignation. To include it on a new album—as opposed to a rarities compilation or something to give it a sense of temporal context—reinforces what some of us feared when the 9/11 anthem “Let’s Roll” came out: Neil’s turning out to be a bit of a square.
The album’s remaining seven tracks were more recently written and recorded, jammed out live a la the Ragged Glory sessions. Occasionally, this tack works, as it does on the hilarious, rollicking “Dirty Old Man” (“I like to get hammered on Friday night/Sometimes I can’t wait, so Monday’s all right”) and the drunken serenade “Ever After.” But more often than not, you wish Young would quit the garage band route—the press kit takes pains to note that the studio where these sessions were recorded has “two vintage gas pumps out front”—and find a Rick Rubin or a Steve Albini to tighten his music up a little. The next-to-last track, “No Hidden Path,” has near-classic potential: It jams out a 3/4 beat straight from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and lyrically it captures both Young’s hippy sincerity (“Will the Northern Lights still play as we walk our distant days?”) as well as his grunge godfather cynicism (“There’s a cold wind blowin’ through my mind”). But the song is nearly 15 minutes long and as good as the guitar solos are, it’s no “Cinnamon Girl.”
Chrome Dreams II closes on a different musical but fittingly self-critical note. “The Way” is a bouncy piano-driven folk song that takes rock n’ roll’s highway motif and tweaks it: “So many lost highways that used to lead home/But now they seem used up and gone.” Young seems to be questioning the same rock n’ roll tropes that he fondly reminisced about on Harvest Moon’s masterpiece “From Hank to Hendrix,” and even when he seems to be on autopilot he’s an endurance tester. But on “The Way,” when a children’s choir hopefully sings, “We know the way/We’ll show the way to bring you back home” like a group of helpful cherubim guiding a weary old hobo, it’s the first time he’s sounded truly tired.