Neil Young - Good As Gold

Neil Young spent most of the '90s making noise -- lots of it. He cut five albums just with his cronies in Crazy Horse, who he has repeatedly called on to get his rocks off since 1969. Young also spent the decade playing godfather to grungy, younger bands like Pearl Jam, with whom he recorded Mirror Ball in 1995, and Sonic Youth, who joined him on tour in 1991.

What a sharp contrast it is, then, seeing the 54-year-old rock icon emerge from a serene-looking, candle-adorned hotel room in Austin, Texas, for an interview to promote his new album, Silver & Gold. With two acoustic guitars lying off to the side and a piano purportedly somewhere in the room, the scene fit the mood of the new CD, a mostly acoustic effort thats lyrically and sonically mellow and uncharacteristically content. I don't know what it is, but this record is me at this point, says Young.

Dressed in his standard t-shirt and jeans, with a black long-coat draped over both, Young is taking a night off from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour to fly to Austin, where his new concert film (also called Silver & Gold) is premiering as part of the South by Southwest Conference. The movie (available on DVD), features new songs like Long May You Run along with past gems such as "Harvest Moon." It was shot in Austin last May inside the pristine Bass Concert Hall. As in the hotel room, the concert found Young by himself, with only acoustic instruments at his side, including a banjo and about a dozen guitars, one of which originally belonged to country legend Hank Williams. "This is one that ain't going in the Hard Rock Hotel," he said at the show.

That concert, the movie it was made into, and the new album all show signs of Young's lingering, um, seniority. He's old, how's that? Or at least, he's singing and writing like a man who has entered his silver years. Songs such as the CD-opening "Good To See You" and the whimsical "Buffalo Springfield Again" are unabashedly nostalgic about the singer's greener days. I'd like to see those guys again and give it a shot/Maybe now we can show the world what we got, he sings in the ode to Springfield. The influential psychedelic folk-rock band has a boxed set scheduled for release in the fall, while no firm release date has yet been set for Young's own eight-CD set, long in the works.

Silver & Gold is also full of sweet, mature, contemplative love songs, some of the most personal Young has ever written. One key influence, it seems, is his wife of two decades, Pegi. In the title track he sings, "Our kind of love never seems to get old/It's better than silver and gold." And the first single Razor Love celebrates the endurance of their relationship. "It's about getting through all the things that get in the way of love," says Young. Love, like a razor, can cut to the point.

Appropriately enough, Young's excuse to cut this conversation to just under 30 minutes is that he has to go to the Austin airport to pick up Pegi. Before he leaves, though, he talks enthusiastically about the new album, sounding as happy about the music as the music sounds happy about life. How would you describe Silver and Gold?

Neil Young: It's the closest record in feel and openness to [the landmark 1970 record] After the Goldrush. Some of these songs were written as far back as 1982, right?

Young: They were written in the same state of mind, I think, over the years. It's all unified. They all got put aside for one reason or another, and the ones that are old had to wait until now to come out. Like Silver & Gold. I recorded that 11 times, and I didn't like any of the recordings. As soon as a band learned the song, it sounded contrived. It's such a simple song, that once you started playing parts on it, it can sound terrible. It's better if it's just played simple. [For these sessions], I would do some old songs just for fill, so we'd have enough songs to make it worth it for everybody to come. Sometimes, I would just throw those in just to have something to do to get warmed up with, but in this case, we caught a couple of them. Does the song "Buffalo Springfield Again" foreshadow a possible Buffalo Springfield reunion?

Young: I don't know if we'll ever play again, but I played with [drummer] Dewey Martin and [bassist] Bruce Palmer a couple years ago at the ranch for a couple of days. We didn't play a lot, but we had fun. That song was written before that. I just wrote that song in one day. That song feels like it sounds. Four songs originally intended for Silver & Gold wound up on the new Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young record Looking Forward, including that album's title track. Why?

Young: There were 14 songs, and I went and did the CSN&Y record. I had listened to Silver & Gold several times, and I could never get the sequencing right, so I just let [the four songs] go. I thought, like everybody else did, that they were the cream of the crop, but on the other hand they're not. Really, they're not, because the other songs just rose up as soon as those other ones were gone. I went to Hawaii after finishing the CSN&Y album, and I had time to think about [Silver & Gold]. I thought about it, and when I got home, listened to the record. It all sounded great, and I haven't changed it since. How do you feel about the CSN&Y reunion tour?

Young: I think it's going fine. I'm really happy with it. As far as continuing it, I don't think we're going to go any further because we played 40 shows, and that's a lot. Now, we'll stop for a while and see what comes after that. Musically, you tend to explore different styles with each new album.

Young: There's no real logic to it. I might do two grungy albums in a row or two soft ones or some different kind of an album. There's no plan. The songs dictate the records. There's no way to tell [the songs] what to do, so there's no need for a plan. Is there anything special about the Silver & Gold DVD concert film?

Young: There's nothing unique about this compared to my other films, except I guess it's the only one that's been released where I'm solo acoustic. It's real straight ahead. There's no theme or anything. It's just me singing and playing different instruments. I can tell you when I look at it that I know I'm being filmed. I'm not completely lost in the music all the time. There's a little struggle going on there. It's got some tension in it. When I look at these things, I get very uncomfortable. But I know they're okay when I listen to them. Did you ever consider releasing an album of the actual concert?

Young: I already did that. That's the way we did Rust Never Sleeps in [1979]. We went out and played all the songs. Everything on Rust Never Sleeps is live. We just took the audience off.

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