Revisiting Neil Young’s Awesome Crazy Horse Reunion, ‘Ragged Glory’
There were definitely times during the '80s when it seemed like Neil Young had lost touch with his muse, but he closed out the decade on a high note — and he carried that resurgence of creative energy roaring into a new decade with his 19th studio album, Ragged Glory.
Released Sept. 10, 1990 — less than a year after Young's previous effort, Freedom — Ragged Glory reunited Young with his on-again, off-again bandmates Crazy Horse for the first time since 1987's Life. But where the earlier album took a hodgepodge approach, alternating plodding, overly produced studio numbers with live recordings, Glory brimmed with the snarling energy Young had brought to portions of Freedom, stripping his sound to the bare minimum and plunging the listener into a buzzing bed of howling guitars that thrust their way out of the speakers with an authority he hadn't mustered in years.
Not that Young was necessarily willing to admit he'd turned a creative corner. "I don't have to come back," he told Vox after Ragged Glory's release. "I've never been gone! They write stuff like 'Oh, this year Neil Young's okay again.' I don't need them to tell me if I'm okay or not. As far as I'm concerned, I've always been okay."
Still, elsewhere in the same interview, he hinted that a deeper focus on family in the '80s — particularly caring for his sons Ben and Zeke, both of whom were diagnosed with cerebral palsy — led to a shift in priorities that reduced his drive to make new music. "I closed myself down so much that I was making it, doing great with surviving – but my soul was completely encased," he mused. "I didn't even consider that I would need a soul to play my music, that when I shut the door on 'pain,' I shut the door on my music. That's what I did. And that's how people get old."
If he sounded revitalized on Freedom, Young came across as positively engorged on Ragged Glory — and the difference, he was quick to point out during an interview with Select, was the band.
"People get the idea that Crazy Horse is backing me, 'cause I do so many other things. But, really, it's me and Crazy Horse playing together. The record is together. There's no leader," he explained. "I have the record deal. But Crazy Horse and me are a group. It's just that I don't always play with that group. But when we're together, it's a special thing. We've been together for so long — I've known Ralph and Billy for 25 years — it's not the same as when I work with anybody else, even though I've had some great experiences with other people. Crazy Horse is a rock band, and we make a great sound. And we sound like no one else."
Young and the band convened in spring 1990 for Ragged Glory, recording most of it in California, with the exception of the closing track, "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)," which was tracked live at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. As Young later told the Boston Globe, the songs sounded loose and vibrant because they were recorded in a quick, sustained burst, with little time for second-guessing or studio polish.
"We did the whole thing in three months, from before the songs were written until the album was mastered and turned in," said Young. "It happened kind of fast. It was like something comes along and you have to jump on and do it. You can't stop until it's done because obviously we knew we were onto it. And we've learned over the years that when the wave comes along, you'd better grab it. So that's what we did, and we just stayed on it until it was up on the beach. It wore me out, but in a real good way. I feel real lucky to have caught that one."
Aside from hearkening back to the amplified swagger of Young's loudest classics, Ragged Glory also highlighted his wry sense of humor, which had too frequently taken a back seat during the po-faced '80s. The record's third track, "F*!#in' Up," surveyed half a life's worth of boneheaded mistakes with pounding catharsis; three songs later, Young and Crazy Horse served up a cover of "Farmer John," the Don and Dewey classic that offered a horny farm boy's ode to a country girl.
While the album still had its darker moments, and Young continued to be willing to indulge in politically oriented songwriting, the overall effect was a record that — in spite of its occasionally monolithic sound — shuffled and swung instead of lumbering.
It was clearly a sonic shift Young's fans were ready to welcome. Continuing the sales resurgence he'd enjoyed with Freedom, Ragged Glory peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart and spun off the Top 40 rock singles "Mansion on the Hill" (No. 3) and "Over and Over" (No. 33). Signaling that Young had enjoyed this Crazy Horse reunion as much as record buyers, the album's release presaged a period of renewed activity with the band that included a 1991 tour later captured on the Weld album (and its feedback-only companion, Arc) as well as a concert film released on VHS.
During the decade that followed, Young would continue to release new albums at a torrid pace — spilling over, to an extent, from the way Ragged Glory reclaimed the warts-and-all aesthetic of his classic records just as a new generation of rock artists who'd clearly been inspired by those uncompromising efforts started storming the charts and, much to Young's bemusement, positioned him as a sort of grandfather for the then-burgeoning grunge movement. As he told Select, Glory was really a reaffirmation of the guy he'd always been — but he looked forward to it opening a gateway for younger fans as well.
"I'm looking forward to playing to those people. This album should give them something to really bite into. And, for the old people who've been listening to us for a long time, this one sorta vindicates them," he suggested. "It wasn't a mirage that you heard. You were right. We do sound good."
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