Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Underrated, Underappreciated (#3 in a Series) - Neil Young's Hawks & Doves

Hawks & Doves is an album that seems to mostly inspire indifference, annoyance, or tepid admiration (in numerical terms: a 3.5 star average on Amazon, a 5.7 from Pitchfork). In this way, it's similar to the album that followed it, Re-ac-tor. Neither album has the high profile of Rust Never Sleeps, which preceded Hawks & Doves and is almost universally regarded as one of Neil Young's best, or Trans, which followed Re-ac-tor and competes with Everybody's Rockin' as Young's most mocked and derided album, a rock geek punchline and the symbol of Young's supposed '80s creative nadir. Hawks & Doves also lacks the "lost classic" mystique of fellow late reissue On The Beach or the still unreissued Time Fades Away. I won't attempt to argue that H&D is better than either of those, but I do think it's a very good album and, at the very least, one of Neil Young's most interesting albums.

The points most commonly made about H&D are that it's a lightweight/half-hearted/throwaway effort, not even reaching the 30-minute mark, and that's it's Neil's "conservative" album, from the period when he'd briefly fallen under the spell of Reagan. The validity of the first point really depends on the strength of the songs rather than the length of the album, as a listing of classic sub-or-barely-30-minute albums could easily demonstrate (from the Ramones debut to A Hard Day's Night), and on this ground I believe H&D deserves to be defended.

"Little Wing" is Neil at his whispery acoustic best, a song so quiet, especially as an album opener, that it's beauty can almost pass by unnoticed. "Stayin' Power" is a modest but effectively straightforward love song about long-term commitment with a sort of country-meets-classic r&b feeling, appropriate enough as good songs about mature, enduring relationships are rarely found outside those two genres. With different instrumentation, "Stayin' Power" could've fit in and been a clear highlight on 2002's almost instantly forgotten Are You Passionate? (if AIP? is remembered at all, it's for the sub-anthemic 9/11 anthem "Let's Roll", shoehorned incongruously into the middle).

"The Old Homestead" is one of NY's rambling, "shaggy dog" stories, a cousin of "Last Trip to Tulsa" and "Ambulance Blues" with a guest appearance by Levon Helm on drums. "Lost in Space" is one of the most wonderfully weird entries in the Neil Young catalog, which is really saying something. It has a beautiful melody that veers into singsong as the lyric veers into stream-of-consciousness nursery rhymes. A lovely line about buildings on the ocean floor leads into a Lollipop Guild-influenced section with pitch-shifted backing vocals credited to the "Marine Munchkin". NY seems to be giving free play to his imagination in this song, letting one line suggest the next with very little editing. I have a real soft spot for this song - it's surprising and surprisingly good.

The political content of the album is for me one of its most interesting aspects. Despite its reputation, the politics of H&D-era Neil Young can't be reduced to a simple label or even easily summarized. The closing, title track may seem at first listen like a patriotic, borderline jingoistic anthem (perhaps directed at the Iranian hostage takers or the Soviets?), but is in fact deeply ambiguous, reflecting the songwriter's position as a by-then wealthy Canadian living (and, as he reminds us in the chorus, paying taxes) in the US. Young's take on America has always blended the romantic view of the admiring outsider with the sharp, skeptical edge of a longtime resident who loves his adopted country too much to see it take the wrong road without speaking up.

"Hawks & Doves" is all about mixed feelings, contradictions. The "U.S.A., U.S.A." backing vocals are a Rorschach, both a joke and not a joke, but the last lines of the last verse are where Neil really takes his stand - "Got rock'n'roll/got country music playin'/if you hate us/you just don't know what you're sayin'". Over the years, he's certainly been willing to point out America's shortcomings, but in the end he's going to stand with the nation that gave birth to his musical heroes, the simultaneously real and mythical land of Elvis and Hank.

The political ambiguity of Hawks & Doves is also well illustrated by "Union Man". The chorus begins with the line "I'm proud to be a union man" only to immediate undercut that sentiment with the sarcastically delivered "I make those meetings when I can...yeah". The ridiculous "union meeting" that ensues in the studio (including the famous-among-NY-fans request for "Live Music Are Better" bumper stickers to be issued) further undermines the surface sentiment, as does the couplet "I pay my dues right on time/when the benefits come I'm last in line". The question remains, though, was the song meant to parody merely the musician's union or was it a larger comment on the way workers are treated by the unions that are supposed to protect their interests?

Such concerns and contradictions would recur in Neil Young's music, but they appear with a particularly sharp edge here. The commentary embedded in the music avoids the traps that so much "political music", even some of Young's own, falls into. The listener isn't bashed over the head with any simplistic messages, and there's no choir being preached to.

Neil has something to say here, but instead of strident slogans or pat prescriptions, he gives us his uncertainty, worry, and anger as a mirror to our own. It may have had something to do with the times - America at the end of the Carter years was a country looking for a direction, for answers, or, if nothing else, someone or something to blame for it's problems. "Comin' Apart at Every Nail" is a portrait of that America - "oh this country sure looks good to me/but these fences are comin' apart/at every nail".

To my mind, The Bottle Rockets (from St. Louis) are the torch carriers for the kind of songwriting represented by the best tracks on H&D. One significant difference that may not be immediately obvious is that The Bottle Rockets tend to tell stories from eye level, focusing on small, telling details, while songs like "Comin' Apart at Every Nail" seem to be surveying a larger scene from an elevated perspective. Both are valid approaches (I'm not saying that Neil's perched up on Rockstar Mountain looking down on all the little people), but the Bottle Rockets have the rare quality of being able to make a song about the working man seem as if it's also by the working man.

Of course, they're heavily and admittedly influenced by Neil Young, but whereas many Neil-loving bands emulate only his sonics - the vocals, the distortion, the loping Crazy Horse rhythms - The Bottle Rockets are more serious students, picking up as much of the wild, humorous, contradictory spirit as the sound. You could safely place The Bottle Rockets' entire career under the heading of "Underrated, Underappreciated".

[Update 7/27/09: Just saw an interview quote from the Bottle Rockets' Brian Henneman that's relevant to what I wrote above. This is Henneman talking about the sound of their upcoming album, Lean Forward -

The one, single thing we deliberately did different this time was avoid the Neil Young. We obviously love Neil Young, but that was the one deliberate angle we tried to avoid this time around: no Neil Young.

It's a pretty clear measure of how big an influence is when you can change your sound by deliberately avoiding it. I'm guessing this is an attempt to mix things up from their previous album, Zoysia, on which they took the opposite approach, fully embracing the Neil to good effect.]

Bonus Links

I intentionally avoided reading Robert Christgau's piece on Hawks & Doves until writing my own, so as not to be unduly influenced. Reading it now, though, it's interesting to see that while we hit some of the same points he seems to see less ambiguity in the political lyrics than I do. Am I giving Neil too much credit, or did Christgau give him too little?

Two versions of "Lost in Space" - Neil Young's first ever live performance of it (from earlier this year!) and another that I won't attempt to describe

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