I was playing a Neil Young greatest hits album yesterday, since that’s what came up first from my streaming service while I was prepping dinner. Great song after great song, none of them really hits since they were all seven minutes long, but all played a million times on the radio and on turntables across America back in the day. When I was in college my go to paper-typing album was Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, because there was close to 20 uninterrupted minutes on each side. The only other disk with so much music was Dylan’s Blood On the Tracks.
But listening to all those songs again, and you know which ones they are, reminded me that Young has released albums and box sets and live discs with those same songs over and over, and yet has continued to make original and vital music up to the present day, too. That’s vital as long as you remember his riposte to someone shouting a request for a tune captured on one of those live albums. Shouter: Play “one of those songs.” Young: Don’t worry. It’s all the same song.
In 1996, Young made an album with Pearl Jam. They went into the studio and bashed this thing out in a few days. It’s a sonic mess, called Mirror Ball, and there are some forgettable tunes/jams, and some that stretch their neck and stand out. I’m the Ocean is one of those, a typical cascade of hippie dippy associations over a churning maelstrom of noises. It requires volume to make sense, and when you find the piano in the bottom, battling with the guitars, you’ve got it loud enough.
I never got Pearl Jam. They always sounded leaden to me on record, but when I finally saw them live (on Saturday Night Live) I started to understand. They weren’t as deadly serious as Eddie Vedder made them sound. Neil Young can sound pretty serious too, he’s the Ocean after all, but you can also be pretty confident that he understands that the joke is in his hand.