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Neil Young, ‘Storytone’ – Album Review

Reprise

Neil Young‘s second album of 2014 couldn’t be any more different than the first.

The stripped-down, all-covers collection ‘A Letter Home’ was recorded in a vintage vinyl recording booth at Jack White‘s Nashville studio; ‘Storytone,’ which includes 10 new songs written by Young, was made with assistance from a 92-piece orchestra, choir and big band. But they have one thing in common: a sense of intimacy you usually don’t get when Young plugs in and rages gloriously with a rock band.

In a way, ‘Storytone’ is both a reaction and complement to ‘A Letter Home,’ a record so slight that its release almost went unnoticed by fans. ‘Storytone’ is no more forceful, but Young’s ambitious scope here — some of the tracks were recorded with a marginally smaller 60-piece orchestra — comes off as a grander plan than just sitting in a 1947 recording booth by himself, singing songs made famous by the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen.

But it’s also a more scattered and unfocused record, with the orchestral set pieces bumping against big-band tunes, which in turn bump against songs featuring just Young with piano, harmonica and minimal accompaniment. If anything, ‘Storytone’ is pulled together by thematic ties rather than musical ones. On songs like ‘Plastic Flowers’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Stand Up,’ Young laments the widespread environmental damage we’re doing to our planet, all the while wondering who’ll “protect the land from the greed of man.”

It’s a recurring theme. On the shuffling, bluesy ‘I Want to Drive My Car,’ he takes the road song for a spin, steering it into similar thematic territory as horns (the brass kind) blast away. “I gotta find some fuel,” he sings, and you know he’s got one eye on big oil as the words leave his mouth. It’s an escape, and for the most part, that’s what ‘Storytone’ is all about: Young breaking free from his zone.

Not that he hasn’t strayed from the rock ‘n’ roll path before — see his detours into rockabilly, electronic music, R&B, country, and various other excursions over the years. ‘Storytone’ certainly isn’t as radical as, say, ‘Trans,’ but the big orchestra, more so than the big band, give Young and his music a gravitas not found on past records. (Just compare the songs with their acoustic versions on the album’s deluxe edition.)

Still, these stylistic leaps ultimately make this a record without much direction, especially because the environmental theme doesn’t hold up the entire time. ‘Storytone’ also contains love songs, a jumpy swing cut about Chicago and that car tune, which really can go either way. It’s telling that the best song on this ambitious project is its most simple, Neil Young-like one, ‘When I Watch You Sleeping,’ a twangy acoustic-and-harmonica kiss straight from the ‘Comes a Time‘ songbook. Sometimes those old familiar roads are the most comforting.

Next: Top 10 Neil Young Songs

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