It’s common to expect the unexpected from Neil Young. When he decided not to tour or play Farm Aid even after pandemic restrictions eased up, he supplied fans who were already gifted with three live releases one last surprise in 2021. It turned out that he reunited with the members of Crazy Horse last summer, recorded a new studio album in a remote restored 19th century barn in the Colorado Rockies and it would come out shortly before Christmas.
The follow-up to their 2019 album Colorado, Barn compiles many of the characteristic musical and lyrical themes previously heard from the self-proclaimed 3rd Best Garage Band in the World. But, as usual, the quartet produces a welcomed sound akin to listening to an old friend who you haven’t seen for years share familiar tales that are told so well you enjoy every minute.
Young and his long-standing musical compatriots — Nils Lofgren, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina — create a scruffy, loose-limbed rock and roll journey that provides sweet wistful remembrances of times past (“Heading West”), calls for action during the present day (“Human Race”) and yearning for a better tomorrow when love will show us the way (“Don’t Forget Love”).
The gentle acoustic strumming of “Song of the Seasons” opens the album as Young takes stock of the environments around him and despite the changes of rural to city living he treasures the consistency coming from the love in his life. That’s followed by “Heading West,” which chugs along in a steady groove as only a patented Crazy Horse electric rocker can. Barroom blues piano enters the sonic sphere during “A Change Ain’t Never” and again on “Shape of You.” while the piano-driven love ballad “Tumblin’ Thru the Years” becomes another sonic shape of NYCH by relaying a song with fragile beauty.
“Human Race” offers the blast furnace rock ‘n’ roll expected from Young with Crazy Horse. The song presents the challenge for multiple generations to be the change we need for a better world now and in the future. The nearly 10-minute “Welcome Back” nods to the hefty tracks of the past such as “Cortez the Killer” but this has more in common with the brooding beauty of “Like an Inca” and “Sleep With Angels.” Recorded on the last day they were together “Don’t Forget Love” provides a fitting coda of the brotherhood among these musicians as well as Young’s all-encompassing message for his fans.
The album’s released on vinyl, CD, cassette and digitally including hi-res audio at the Neil Young archives site, www.neilyoungarchives.com, as well as a deluxe edition that includes the LP, CD and Blu-ray film that captures the band members performances and behind-the-scenes footage.
The camera work on the Barn visual documentary makes you feel like a fly on the wall, allowing viewers to be front-and-center as the band performs each one of the album’s 10 tracks live as it is being recorded and catching illuminating and occasionally humorous between-song conversations and rehearsals:
— a vocal warm-up exercise leads to an off-color request for beer.
–Nils Lofgren plays an elegant piano improvisation while Young and Billy Talbot quietly listen. Once finished, Talbot breaks the silence by saying, “Hey Nils! Beautiful.” Young immediately agrees.
–a brief glimpse of a dinner celebrating the birthdays of Lofgren, drummer Ralph Molina and manager Frank Gironda.
–Lofgren, Talbot and Molina discuss how impressed they are by the mood developed during “Welcome Back” and Neil’s deep guitar playing on Old Black that travels into some dark emotional territory. Molina compares it to “Tonight’s the Night.”
The cinematography focuses on the surroundings as much as it does those performing. It evokes tranquility as well as isolation coupled with the musicians’ determination to capture some magic while the rest of the world is on lockdown. The shots offer subtle emotional characteristics of the recording situation. A photo that’s affixed to Young’s guitar case of his longtime manager Elliott Roberts, who passed away in 2019, decorations of animal skulls, Native American totem pole, Cigar Store Indian and use of a battered upright piano shows that Young has a devotional interest and dedication to the previous times yet he uses that as inspiration to constantly move forward.
While the 73-minute film presents a glimpse into the background of this latest triumph by Young and Crazy Horse, the most important scene occurs around 30 minutes into the documentary. Lofgren discusses recording “Tonight’s the Night” and how Young’s approach towards recording rests on instinctual creativity. Discussing the importance of playing the songs live and accepting the results rather than tinkering with them to lifeless perfection, Young encapsulated his musical philosophy and recorded history by responding. “If you feel it when it goes down you don’t have a thing to worry about for the rest of your life.”