That Time Neil Young Headed Back to the Country for ‘Prairie Wind’
For his 30th album, Neil Young returned to a comfort zone of sorts. Prairie Wind, released on Sept. 27, 2005, recalled the country-kissed sounds of Harvest in 1972 and its unofficial sequel, 1992's Harvest Moon – even if the results failed to strike the same chord with the public. Prairie Wind has held up well, however, and deserves some reappraisal.
The album kicks off with Young's subtle yet moving "The Painter," a song that aches with Ben Keith's haunting pedal steel guitar and Young's heartfelt vocal. "If you follow every dream," he warns, "you might get lost." "No Wonder," which may just be this project's high point, begins with an initial stark setting before giving way to a full band – carrying echoes of earlier gems ranging from "World on a String" to "Captain Kennedy."
Lyrically, Prairie Wind boasts references to the post-9/11 world. Though not a concept album by any means, a few of the songs on this lost nugget tie together with themes of loss, love, relationships and the eternal search for a better place to land. Some of the lyrics were connected to Neil Young's father, who died in the same period.
Musically, "Far From Home" is an odd man out, as it stumbles in with a soul-tinged horn section and a melody somewhat reminescent of the Rolling Stones' "No Expections." Meanwhile, "It's a Dream" is a lush, orchestrated weeper, showing Young at his most heartbreaking. The title song ushers in the horn section again, this time to better effect, as Young rumbles along with slightly more spit and swagger.
Echoes of the Everly Brothers riff Young previously borrowed for "Harvest Moon" are again found on "This Old Guitar," a love letter of sorts to his six-stringed companion. "He Was the King," a full-fledged nod to Elvis Presley, begins with the classic line: "the last time I saw Elvis, he was shooting at a color TV." Prairie Wind ends on the somber note of "When God Made Me," which might rank as one of Neil Young's most personal and touching songs. It's just Neil backed by piano and chorus, allowing the song to take on an almost hymnal quality. Many of Young's usual suspects make an appearance on the album, including Spooner Oldham, Rick Rosas and Emmylou Harris.
During the recording sessions, Young was dealing with something more serious than simply getting a new LP in order. He suffered a brain aneurysm, and began receiving treatment for what was nearly a fatal situation. Also happening in tandem was the filming of Heart of Gold, a documentary that chronicled this time frame and culminated with a two-night stand at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
Prairie Wind generally received good reviews, even earning two Grammy nominations for Best Rock Album of the Year and Best Rock Solo Performance for "The Painter." It rode the Billboard charts for several months, peaking just shy of the Top 10. Yet, today is somehow remains one of Young's lesser-regarded albums. Certainly, it's not ever going to replace Harvest or Comes a Time, but it certainly sits comfortably in that section of the Young catalog.
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