Album Review: Neil Young – Bluenote Cafe (2015 LP)

In any artistic career that lasts decades, there will inevitably be a period where the artist loses touch with their fans, their music and themselves. For Neil Young, this period was the entire 1980s. In a career of weird moves (most notably 2010’s Fork in the Road, a concept album devoted entirely to the benefits of electric cars), the 1980s had some of the strangest – in the space of 10 years, the folk/rock legend released a legitimate dance music record, a bizarre rockabilly covers album, and an angry hard rock LP. Young was trying to throw everything at the wall, and not that much was sticking. His personal life was going through turmoil, and this showed in a decade of music that was confused and unconvincing.

The saving grace of this period, by all accounts, was the live shows. While in the studio, Young sounded like he was floundering, the blistering emotion and sheer volume of his live shows remained. This release is the second in Young’s Archives series from the 80s, following on from A Treasure, featuring mostly country tracks. Bluenote Cafe is a far more rock-oriented release, with a full brass band.

The music is, on the whole, pretty good. The concerts were well-recorded, and you can clearly hear the interplay between horns, voice and guitar. It’s also fun to hear some of Young’s classics, like “Tonight’s the Night” and “On the Way Home”, played in a way you haven’t heard before, although the horns can be a bit jarring. Another highlight is “Ordinary People”, a brilliant track that shows off Young’s songwriting power and his often-overlooked sense of humour. “Ordinary People” was played live for 30 years before being recorded in the studio in 2002. This version is one of the best and most powerful.

Most of the rest of the album consists of his 80s material, and this is really the best thing about the release – songs like “This Note’s For You”, which lacked focus in their recorded form, have more energy and emotion live. It’s refreshing to hear Neil sing these songs like he really means it. However, it’s hard to argue with the fact that these tracks are simply not as well written as tracks from Young’s heyday – few reach the visceral power of his early work. Also, the tracks are cobbled together from a variety of shows, rather than just being a recording of one concert, so there’s no real sense of cohesion in the release – it just feels like a bunch of random songs rather than a real live album.

In the end, this release is only really going to be interesting for people who are already invested in Neil Young – it isn’t going to convert anyone who’s on the fence.  But if you’re a fan like me, it’s worth checking out – Bluenote Cafe is a window into a period in his career that was fraught and often pretty lame, but that still had flashes of his genius.

Review Score: 7.8 out of 10.

Bluenote Cafe is out now.

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