Last summer, longtime collaborators Neil Young and Crazy Horse gathered in a 19th-century barn in the Rockies, full moon hanging overhead. Tuning into that strange artistic spirit that compels one to write, they crafted a collection that was very much a product of its environment — rustic and weathered, but with an undeniable air of romance.
Barn, released Dec. 10, is an eclectic reflection of the Laurel Canyon veterans from which it came. It quickly shifts between lulling harmonicas and demanding electric guitars, addressing everything from love to climate change. Young’s voice propels listeners through it all, inviting them into this space away from the hustle and bustle of society. In the solitude of the Rockies, Young and Crazy Horse have truly built something to last.
The album begins with the peaceful harmonics of “Song of the Seasons.” Young’s voice is immediately recognizable, but there is a bit of a wavering quality to it. The musician has aged, and he leans into this fact as he reflects on changing seasons and lasting love. For six minutes, he creates comfort amid change, though a lingering melancholy seeps between the lines.
Before listeners can settle into this feeling, the album quickly shifts into the commanding classic rock of “Heading West,” during which Young reflects on his boyhood. Though lyrically simple, it carries a similar note of nostalgia and awareness of the passage of time. Like a cubist painting, the album brings together similar themes at different angles, allowing a palpable dynamism to emerge when they bump up against each other.
Young has never been one to shy away from political subjects, and he makes no exception as he criticizes the “fuel-burning mob” on “Change Ain’t Ever Gonna Come.” The jumpy rhythm and dominant harmonica are almost reminiscent of a Grateful Dead track, but the song has more of a bite as it tackles the exploitation of the working class and the planet. The album picks up this topic again on the aggressive “Human Race,” imploring what we will do to save the “children of the fires and floods.”
Even as he wanders into these heavy subjects, Young still has an optimistic take on the political landscape. On the creative “Canerican,” he ecstatically acknowledges his fairly new status as an American citizen, but he also denies that this makes him any less Canadian. Rather than just articulating his opinions in songs such as “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” Young can utilize the power of the vote — something he thinks is worth celebrating.
Though each song and each lyric feels incredibly intentional, the album is not meant to be pretty or polished. In the upbeat love song “Shape of You,” Young’s voice awkwardly transitions into a wailing falsetto. It may not be the most beautiful sound, but there is a playfulness and self-awareness packed into its delivery. Each track sounds raw and genuine, assuring listeners that they’re getting the real thing.
Perhaps the most poetic — and most cryptic — song comes toward the end of the album. The laid back, understated “Welcome Back” sees Young opening a “window to your soul,” but he does so gradually. With each lyric about turning on computers and stars mingling with the sky, he digs further into the contemporary human condition. In their years of touring and writing music, Young and Crazy Horse have come to understand what it means to live, and these lessons help shape the album into something markedly wise and insightful.
Through it all, an overwhelming sense of tenderness prevails. In “Don’t Forget Love,” the musicians remind listeners to not neglect love even when it seems like everything is falling apart. It’s a simple message, but an important one. It reframes the rest of the album in a more positive light, maintaining that compassion can lead humanity even through the darkness.
Throughout Barn, Young and Crazy Horse prove that their musicianship endures, withstanding the journey from the heart of Laurel Canyon to the solitude of the Rockies. Much like the barn in which it was recorded, the album may be a little rough around the edges — but that’s what makes it so beautiful.