In 1989, Neil Young’s credibility was not exactly high, having released a string of dodgy, genre-hopping albums in the 1980s. What a relief it was when this album landed, a sort of back-to-basics album without weird vocoder effects (Trans) or country-hick stylings (Old Ways) but actual good songs of both the rocking and acoustic variety.
The album is bookended by 2 versions of Rockin’ In The Free World, which was a huge anthem for Neil Young. An acoustic version opens the album, with a full band version closing it, mimicing the structure of Rust Never Sleeps which did the same trick with Hey Hey, My My. The electric version rocks harder than anything since Rust Never Sleeps, and its big guitar riff made it an instant classic… and a busker’s dream. Timing was everything as the song became an anthem of sorts for the fall of the Berlin Wall, which occurred shortly after this album’s release.
Beyond this song there are plenty of other decent songs here. Don’t Cry has a gnarled, distorted guitar underpinning the melody, which returns on the Spanish-inflected Eldorado and his version of On Broadway. The latter could have been a disaster but it actually works, based primarily on layers of guitar which build and build, becoming progressively more ragged, culminating in Young screaming “give me that crack” at the end of the song.
Midtempo tracks like Crime in the City and Someday are marred by some very 80s saxophone, however the country-tinged Too Far Gone, a song dating back to the 70s, fares better, the simple melody nicely carried by steel guitar.
Lovers of the more acoustic side of Neil Young are catered for here, with Hangin’ on a Limb taking a classic Young acoustic guitar progression by way of Linda Ronstadt’s backing vocals to form a gorgeous little song. I should also mention Wrecking Ball, where another simple melody works well via Neil Young’s ghostly piano.
Definitely his strongest album since Rust Never Sleeps, it laid to rest his dodgy 80s period once and for all and paved the way for his co-option into the classic rock “canon” in the 90s.