Neil Young, with and without various collaborators, has recorded some three dozen albums over 45 years. Some, like After the Gold Rush and Rust Never Sleeps, were so good that they not only captured their moment, they embodied the zeitgeist of those times. Others have run the gamut one might expect from anyone so prolific and impulsive. Search online for “Neil Young’s worst album” and you’ll see a lot of lists in reverse order. I’m here to say that in almost every way, Storytone is a serious candidate for Neil Young’s worst album.
Storytone is 10 new songs presented in two ways: solo, and then with musicians including orchestras as many as 90 strong. First you must trudge through the overripe orchestrations that might pass for second-rate Nelson Riddle if the songs or singing were any good, but they are not. They lack the melodic heft, or variations in tempo, or forceful syncopation or bold singing, that might make the embellishments worthwhile. Hope for a bounce from the acoustic renditions disappears along with the spiritless self-accompanied piano playing that begins “Plastic Flowers.” The guitar playing on other tunes has none of the crisp resonance of his better solo work: There’s no attack. His longtime band Crazy Horse, capable of lifting any collection of Young songs out of the muddle, is nowhere to be heard.
The songs show none of the pungent, plain-spoken poesy of Young’s most ordinary songs, even going back to, say, “Sugar Mountain.” Love songs such as “Glimmer” contain overstated greeting-card sentiments: “Like a forest without leaves on its trees…” would get the point across, but no, Young must add the unnecessary “…standin’ in the desert.” Similarly, “Tumbleweed” contains the astonishing line “Your beauty is like a peace sign to me.” What makes it astonishing is that it is sung with sincerity. The environmental songs don’t rise to the level of anthems: “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” is a collection of bumper-sticker slogans. “End fossil fuel!…End fracking now!…”Damn the dams.” At least the acoustic version of “Say Hello to Chicago,” almost rises to interesting, and nostalgic tune, “All Those Dreams,” has one amusing image, a melting snowman, “his nose a cucumber.” But try singing that. By the way, did you know you can turn a cucumber into a pickle, but you can’t turn a pickle back into a cucumber? Storytone is Neil Young’s sourest pickle.