How Neil Young Tentatively Stepped Into a New Era With ‘Re-ac-tor’
Neil Young entered the '80s with a record that, like several before it, played catch-up with his past. Hawks & Doves, released in late October 1980, included some songs dating back to 1974, when the singer-songwriter was putting together an acoustic album that was subsequently abandoned.
Almost a year after that, in late October 1981, Young got back together with his old sparring partners Crazy Horse for his first real album of the decade, Re-ac-tor, an LP that straddles the line between the past and the future – and, more significantly, his past and future as an artist and performer.
In a way, Re-ac-tor was a reaction to Hawks & Doves, a guitar-fronted assault on the folk and country niceties of the earlier record. It was also Young's first tentative step into a new era, specifically the New Wave one he'd explore more enthusiastically on his next album, 1982's Trans.
As it stands, Re-ac-tor falls somewhere between those two records, lacking the comforting familiarity of Hawks & Doves but nowhere near as polarizing as the electronics-enhanced Trans. In other words, Young made better albums in the '80s (not many, though) and he certainly made worse.
With Crazy Horse as Young's backing band, Re-ac-tor puts much emphasis on the guitars that are the hallmark of their many collaborations over the years. But Young also used synths for the first time here – accessorizing, if you will, the garage-rock fuzz with blasts of sonic accoutrement that occasionally seemed like an odd fit.
Trans took Young's experiments with electronic music, particularly through the use of the Synclavier, to entirely new fields; the synths on Re-ac-tor add instrumental heft and a semi-balancing foot in a new era. At their best, they become just another part of the album's landscape, but they just as often get in the way of the music.
So the record's best songs are the most traditional: "Surfer Joe and Moe the Sleaze," "Southern Pacific" and the nearly eight-minute closer, "Shots," a distortion-drenched orgy of guitars and sound effects that recalls some of Young and Crazy Horse's fiercest work of the '70s.
Like its predecessor, Re-ac-tor didn't crack the Top 25 and didn't stick around on the charts for long. It was a sign of things to come. The next several years would be among the bumpiest of Young's long career, and, in a way, the record is one of his most representative of the period. At times frustrating, and just as often admirable for its creator's restlessness, the album sums up Young's decade in 39 tangled minutes.