Home Read Classic Album Review: Neil Young | Greendale

Classic Album Review: Neil Young | Greendale

One of the odder landmarks in Shakey's lengthy canon, his rock opera / concet LP / soap opera / musical / soundtrack / whatever is also one of his more accessible sets.


This came out in 2003 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):


Neil Young has been living in own little world for decades — but now, it seems he’s finally decided to make it official.

Welcome to Greendale, the shape-shifting singer-guitarist’s latest album guaranteed to please his legions of loyal followers, alienate his fair-weather fans and generally leave everybody else scratching their heads and wishing he would just write more songs like Cinammon Girl already. Part rock opera, part concept album, part song cycle, part soap opera, part Broadway musical, part soundtrack, part allegory and wholly freaky, this 78-minute creation — which Young has also turned into a feature film and a stage production — has already earned its spot alongside the synthesizer-worshipping Trans and the feedback-fest Arc as one of the odder landmarks in Neil’s lengthy canon.

It’s certainly one of the most intriguing and ambitious projects he’s come out with lately. Set in a fictional Northern California coastal town, Greendale loosely chronicles the misadventures of three generations of the Green family. Grandpa and Grandma Green hang out on the porch, reading the paper and bemoaning the state of the world. Their son Earl — a former hippie and Vietnam vet who paints psychedelic pictures no one will buy — lives with his wife Edith on the Double E Ranch with their son Jed and daughter Sun.

It all sounds very Mayberry. But it ends up more like Twin Peaks. Jed turns out to be a drug-smuggling survivalist who kills a local cop during a traffic stop. Grandpa collapses and dies after taking a potshot at reporters who surround the Double E in the ensuing media frenzy. Sun becomes a eco-terrorist, falls in love with a guy named Earth Brown, and sets off for Alaska to save the world after an FBI agent shoots her cat. Oh, and did I mention the Devil lives in the town jail and roams the streets at night?

If it all sounds disjointed and sketchy, well, no wonder: Young claims he didn’t set out to write a narrative album, but simply went along for the ride after the same characters kept popping up in songs. But don’t let Neil’s literary aspirations (or lack thereof) turn you off of Greendale. Even if you ignore the half-baked plot, you can still enjoy the music. Greendale’s 10 tracks are vintage Young — loping, stripped-down roots-rock, blues and folk, raggedly and lovingly bashed out by Neil, his trusty old Les Paul and the rhythm section of his longtime compadres Crazy Horse. And even though these rambling numbers tend toward the long side — all but one are over five minutes, and three top the 10-minute mark — most of them come with solid choruses, hummable guitar licks and melodies that stick in your head after just a listen or two, ironically making Greendale one of the most accessible and appealing albums Neil has put out in years.

But whether or not you see Greendale as a nice place to visit, you have to give Young credit for trying. At an age when most of his contemporaries are content to live off their back catalog, he continues to evolve as an artist, refusing to compromise his vision or pander to his audience — even (and especially) if they want to be pandered to. It’s that drive that keeps Young in a class by himself. Even if he is in a world of his own.


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