Sunday, 10 July 2016

Trans - Neil Young

Provenance: A recommendation from an online music forum member who once stated "I'm suspicious of anybody who doesn't like [Neil Young's] Trans."

Review: Ha ha ha! I'm going to say straight away that this is my favourite Neil Young album, and I own a whole bunch. I'm not being purposefully obtuse; but unlike most people, I encountered Trans thanks to passionate advocacy. The way one is primed to experience an album is, I think, rather important. On a related note, I'm a big fan of ZZ Top's Recycler album because I had literally never heard any of their music before so didn't feel the impulse to stack it against some of their more well-regarded releases.

Yet Trans is not completely reviled, even if much recent writing is focused on reconsidering or rehabilitating it, which suggests critics got it wrong the first time around. But some liked it, and that bellwether of public opinion, the Amazon customer reviews section, currently grants it four and a half stars out of five.

I can only guess why the impulse to defend this album still exists. I was minus three years old when Trans hit the shelves so I didn't have the benefit of growing up with Shakey as he moved from Buffalo Springfield to solo acclaim and the folksy harmonising of CSNY. In essence, I didn't have an idea of what Neil Young 'should be', and haven't felt that any of his numerous experiments represent any massive sea change. In any case, Neil Young does Kraftwerk sounds pretty sweet, no?

Trans actually begins with a track, "Little Thing Called Love", that gives few clues about what's to come and is arguably the weakest thing on here. It smacks of the weird mid-stream crises of confidence that seemed to infect many of Young's peers in the Eighties; over-produced, tinny guitar sounds, crap lyrics, congas. It's jaunty I suppose. We get the good stuff on track two, "Computer Age", which is stacked with synths and features a kind of hyperreal Young vocal, rendered impossibly high and airless via the use of a vocoder.

One thing I shall concede is that some of this material seems quaint, given the age we live in now. "Computer Age", "We R In Control" (which makes creative use of touch-tone telephone sounds) and "Computer Cowboy" all sound weirdly innocent given the connectivity of our world. How it sounded in 1982 I couldn't guess - but this is an age where, my Dad attests, a floppy disk (genuinely floppy) containing payroll records of the company where he worked was wiped because someone smoked too close to it. We were still over a decade away from Billy Idol's wonderful disaster Cyberpunk (1993) and the movie Hackers (1995); computing was a fringe pursuit to many. Besides, I have a sneaking suspicion that Young's tongue was in his cheek when delivering the line 'Come a ky ky yippee yi yippee yi ay' on "Computer Cowboy", a mangled digitisation of Lead Belly's herding cry from "When I Was A Cowboy" (or perhaps the TV cowboy show Rawhide?).

Young's fascination with electronica reaches its zenith on "Sample And Hold"; a monochrome drum machine holds together a bizarre, robotic song seemingly about a cyborg dating agency. He then proceeds to annoy long-term fans with an updated version of the Buffalo Springfield song "Mr Soul" (guess which rendering I prefer?) once again utilising a drum machine and a rather attractive, pillowy-sounding synthesised bass. This album is lovely - it pulses with a warm neon moonglow, human and machine working symbiotically. Young's singing especially benefits from electronic treatment, pushing an already ethereal voice into strange, unearthly realms.

And now I'm going to troll myself entirely here by saying that the least electronic, most traditional 'Neil Young' song on here, "Like An Inca", is the best. Yeah, they bust out the congas again, but they actually add texture to nine sparse minutes of druggy meditation on nuclear apocalypse. So good is this song that, in my opinion, it eclipses everything else somewhat. Look at me, talking about how Neil Young is great at electronica, before picking "Like An Inca" as the highlight! At long last, have I no sense of decency?

Before I wrap this turkey, one outside influence is worth bearing in mind when considering the creative impetus behind Trans. Neil Young's son Ben was born with cerebral palsy and was unable to speak. Young had recently bought a vocoder and, whilst experimenting with it, noticed that Ben would react when he spoke through the gadget. Viewed through the lens of a father attempting to communicate with his child, Trans suddenly assumes an unexpected poignancy and, all in all, seems a noble endeavour indeed.

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