Neil Young’s independent streak has only gotten more and more pronounced as he’s gotten older. But while he’s produced more spotty genre experiments and half-efforts in the last 15 years than he has truly memorable albums, one can easily view those missteps less as black marks on his unwieldy discography and more as forgivable, even endearing, manifestations of his off-the-wall personality. So it’s hard to get too worked up about the softheaded schmaltz and flaccid white-boy blues that make up Storytone, most of which Young, in his latest fit of experimentation, recorded with the aid of a full orchestra, occasionally augmented by a choir or brass band.
The album introduces the world to Neil Young the crooner, which is probably not a side of him anyone thought they ever needed to hear—especially now that his voice has gotten pitchier with age. But even though Storytone’s gloppy Disney-movie strings and half-assed singing can be trying to sit through at times, the extent to which Young is willing to go to avoid resting on his laurels and making Even Longer After the Gold Rush is admirable. Namely, making an album that features almost none of the musical tropes listeners associate with Neil Young—or rock music in general.
Indeed, if you want to hear songs that could have been on any previous Neil Young album, then you’ll only find a couple of candidates: The orchestra is scaled back enough on the sweet, tender acoustic-based closing songs “When I Watch You Sleeping” and “All Those Dreams” that one could imagine Young putting them out in the ’70s (the former even has a pedal steel on it). But the orchestral arrangements aren’t the only reason Storytone comes across as syrupy; it also features some of Young’s hokiest and lyrically hackneyed material ever. Lead single “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” sees Young in full Farm Aid mode, espousing generic environmentalist platitudes that might’ve sounded insightful coming from a class of third-graders, but not from the guy who wrote “Ohio”: “Who’s gonna stand up and save the earth/This all starts with you and me.”
Young covers the rest of his usual themes throughout the album: there’s more environmental imagery on the “A Man Needs a Maid”-esque piano ballad “Plastic Flowers”; he sings about his beloved electric car on the aggressively dumb “I Want to Drive My Car”; and expresses plenty of saccharine romantic sentiments in songs like “When I Watch You Sleeping,” which isn’t nearly as creepy as its title suggests. The only song with any lyrical edge to it is the blues tune “Like You Used to Do,” and given that it appears to be a kiss-off to his wife of 36 years, Pegi, from whom Young filed for divorce this summer, it doesn’t have much bite: “I tried and I tried/And as the time went by/You just didn’t want it no more.”
Perhaps as a concession to those skeptical of the whole Neil-meets-the-Philharmonic premise, Storytone is available in a deluxe version featuring versions of all 10 songs performed solo by Young on guitar and piano. For instance, “Say Hello to Chicago” is rendered first with low-key juke-joint piano riffs and then as a snappy Rat Pack-style big-band swinger. On the one hand, it reveals that Storytone’s disposability can’t be entirely blamed on the hilariously overdone arrangements, as even without those trappings, there just isn’t much to these songs in the first place. On the other, hearing intimate demos suddenly make ornate transformations makes for an illuminating lesson in just how much production and arrangement can change a song.