Today the world gets its first full glimpse of Americana, Neil Young’s first album with Crazy Horse since 2003’s quirky anarcho/enviro-conceptual effort, Greendale. With their signature surfeit of laissez-faire looseness, Young and his rough-and-tumble road warriors roared into the recording studio long enough to bring some trademark ragged glory to a batch of cover tunes. In keeping with its title, Americana is dominated by classic American folk songs, like “Oh Susannah,” “Clementine,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” all given a raunchy rock & roll makeover. With Neil busy playing garage-rock troubadour, it’s a good time to reflect on his multiple musical personalities. For as much of an instantly identifiable sound as he’s established in the course of his career, he’s simultaneously been almost the American equivalent to David Bowie in terms of chameleonic shifts in style. Here are just a few of the faces and phases of Neil Young, many of which he’s fruitfully revisited over the years.
1. The Lonesome Folkie
Neil started out his singer/songwriter career as a mournful moaner of Dylanesque tunes, like this surrealist epic from his ’68 solo debut. Even the more folk-rocky “hit” from this album was Young’s alienation anthem, “The Loner.”
2. The Ragged Rocker
His longest-lasting and most consistently recurring musical persona, fuzztone-spattered Topanga Canyon guitar-slinger, is the Neil many know best, and this epic 1969 desert-rock firefight is a quintessential early example.
3. The Country Crooner
Smack dab in the middle of the early-‘70s L.A. country-rock milieu, Neil was destined to trod the cowboy path at some point, and he took a twangy turn many times in his career, with this tear-stained 1970 Don Gibson cover being among the first.
4. The Electro-New Wave Weirdo
By the early ‘80s, Neil was adopting and shedding personalities faster than a schizophrenic spy in the Cold War era USSR. It would not be outrageous to suggest that his Kraftwerk-influenced synths-and-vocoders techno-geek phase burned itself into the brains of a young Daft Punk.
5. The Industrial Avant-Gardist
This was a natural outgrowth of persona number two, as Neil’s marathon feedback-and-distortion-soaked guitar explorations grew wings, especially on 1991’s live Arc album, sort of a West coast version of Lou Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music