“I’ve always been an eccentric, a rocker at heart. I can’t play the guitar, but I can play the griddle.” – Guy Fieri
If you have the volume up loud enough, for the first few seconds of “Milky Way,” before the drums come in, you can hear Ralph Molina’s snares rattling against the bottom head of his snare drum. The drums are certainly set near a very loud amplifier, which pumps out sludgy, low-end fuzz from one of the guitars. The air the speaker pushes rumbles around the studio and acts as a precursor of what is to come.
Neil Young can rock harder than you. This, of course, is old news. At 48, he completely outclassed Pearl Jam during a joint performance of “Rockin in the Free World” at the 1993 MTV Music Awards. His performance left Eddie Vedder, a man 20 years his junior, staring in awe at the man with the black Les Paul. Now, at 73 years old, Young continues to bring it.
Colorado (2019) features Young with his most trusted backing band, Crazy Horse, and all of the beautiful noise they bring with them. In the trailer for the documentary Young made about the album’s recording, Mountaintop, Young says to his audio engineers that he wants his guitar playback “as loud as it can go. I want to hear the fuckin thing.” This album, and Neil Young in general, demands that you play them loud, and if you can’t hear the snares rattle in “Milky Way,” you aren’t.
Fuzz is a wonderful thing. It can make the bedroom guitarist feel like a rock star at the flip of a switch and adds power and depth to the sound being pushed through an amp. Not the warm buzz of a tube amplifier being pushed into overdrive or the crunch of its close cousin distortion, fuzz takes your guitar and drags it through the mud. Fuzz takes the electrical signal coming from the guitar’s pickups and chops off the high and low ends, compressing it and increasing its volume and sustain by transforming a normal sound wave into a square-shaped monster.
Young’s playing is far from square, and his sound is indeed monstrous. Colorado features plenty of songs which adhere to the classic Young/Crazy Horse format of extended, fuzzed out solos interspersing short verses. “She Showed Me Love” is a 13-minute jam built around lamentations about people destroying the environment. “Help Me Lose My Mind” is the shorter variety of the jam, sacrificing length for speed and having Crazy Horse contribute backup vocals on the chorus, before letting Young go back to stomping around the studio (probably) and making the walls shake with his guitar like only he can.
But, like any collaboration with Crazy Horse, or any of his work for that matter, Young lets his myriad interests shine through. Much like the Mayor of Flavortown, Young is an eccentric and a rocker at heart, but he loves soft folk songs just as much. The album opens with a wailing harmonica to kick off “Think Of Me,” calling back to his piercing solos from Rust Never Sleeps (1979) and “My My, Hey Hey.”
Young also lets his vocal chops shine in glimpses on this album. His voice is certainly unique, and equally adept at powerful belting over his band or soft crooning like on Harvest (1972). On Colorado, the melody of “Green Is Blue” feels like it was written exactly for his voice and fills out the soft strumming of another song about climate change.
The environment has been one of Young’s calling cards ever since he did After the Gold Rush (1970). Even back then, he remarked in the album’s titular song that “Mother Nature is on the run in the 1970s.” Almost 50 years later, she still is, but Young is more willing to call out the people responsible. He has always had a knack for being political, but his recent work feels too on-the-nose compared to “Rockin in the Free World” or “Ohio.” It is hard to put a finger on what it is that feels different, but then he trots out a song like “Rainbow Of Colors” (with a melody that sounds familiar but you really have no idea where from) about how “There’s a rainbow of colors / in the old USA / No one’s gonna white wash / those colors away.”
The song itself is not bad, the guitars are interesting, and it feels like a song that you can sing along to, but something is lacking all the same. Perhaps an artist with a career spanning more than 50 years as one of the most prolific and influential singer-songwriters has given us too much material to compare to. I should have known that Colorado was never going to be another Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) or Zuma (1975). Maybe I just hoped it would.
But when you let those expectations go, and turn up the volume to the point where your ears are buzzing like the overcooked tubes in Young’s amplifier, there is still Crazy Horse’s foot stomping rhythm section and plenty of fuzz to rattle your bones like the snares at the start of “Milky Way.”