There are certain ways to listen to certain music. Some albums sound best in a dark room with a small, orange halo flaming over a single candle. Others are best throbbing through industrial-grade speakers, barely beating out the sound of excited people under the colorful strobe of a disco ball. Neil Young is an artist whose music is fit for a cross-country drive on dusty highways that haven’t seen rain in years, blasting intimate guitar strums and high-pitched, aged-like-fine-wine vocals through open car windows. Young’s recently released LP in conjunction with Promise of the Real, The Visitor, is no different.
At the age of 72, Young is still impressively delivering on a trademark sound he developed almost 40 albums ago –– continuing to mature that Southern-meets-California-rock sonic fusion. The Visitor does an incredible job of modernizing blues sounds while harkening back to The Harvest days of one man, one guitar, American-dream songs.
The opening song “Already Great” is not only an accurate remark on the album’s first impressions, but a melt of Young’s classic vocals, loud yet soft-spoken guitar and rhythmic cymbal work. The lyrics call out President Donald Trump’s desire to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. Promise of the Real bandmember Lukas Nelson’s influence is heard in the modernized country guitar lulls, a similar yet updated version of his father Willie Nelson’s style. As most of his albums have been, this is a marriage of cultural commentary, experimental undertones and highly refined skill — a note that the opening song introduces from the start.
While songs like “Already Great” carry intense themes appropriate for large venues, songs like “Change of Heart” are more intimate, loose tunes. This song feels like a Western movie –– desert cacti piercing out of the ground, an old man in a rocking chair whistling as the narrator closes the film recounting the lessons we’ve learned. It’s a song of restrained, bluesy instrumentals and lyrics spoken rather than sung, with a catchy chorus that could easily be sung around a campfire. Similarly, “When Bad Got Good” doesn’t play like a typical record-label reviewed song, recorded over and over — rather, it seems like Young and Promise of the Real were brainstorming sounds, playing off of each other like an intense game of tennis.
These types of folky, familiar ballads are frequent, but The Visitor is not without explosive jams. The blues tune “Diggin’ a Hole” is a song covered in charcoal dust, lugging coal out of a mining shaft. It’s a blue-collar theme, a flashback to the electric-guitar-filled, manic-yet-focused power ballads of Ragged Glory. The song has that same synergetic distortion that was born out of Young’s time touring with Sonic Youth. The haunting track “Carnival” is a twisting combination of howls and a fire-lit story tracing carnival life in the glow of a flashlight. The backup singers’ chant echoes, and the catchy tune, cut off by luminous guitar, made for a disjointed and enthralling song.
The chant style is carried through the entire album from this song to the very specific lyrics of “Stand Tall.” His lyricism is clear, bitter and passionate –– obviously calling out the institutions at work today, asking for compassion and change. Young takes on corporate America in an iconic fashion that warmly reminds listeners of the gravitas of ‘70s rock and the definitive sentiments of old-school styles. This is a tracklist of amusement-park energy that makes the individual experience of listening to the album feel communal.
Not every album of the 39 released by Young over the past 48 years have been champion records. While some warrant a casual listen all the way through and are a passing enjoyment when played on the radio, others shock with their ingrained connection to listeners and undeniably ingenious mixing of sound. The Visitor is such an album, meant to be played trekking across abandoned highways, the high voice and unpinnable, iconic sound of Young seeping in as you sing along as if you’re in the room with him.
Contact Maisy Menzies at [email protected].