Neil Young: A National Treasure without a Passport

I picked up 'Prairie Wind' the other day. I've read the reviews - which I rarely do - and without blushing I offer my own thoughts.

Musically, the guitar work is full of light wind memories and imagery. The lead song 'The Painter' sets this tone perfectly. This is the type of album that resonates with people who love to hear the dominance of a guitar over lyrics - and the guitar work is indeed sublime in its humble beauty. Speaking of written thoughts, the lyrics do seem a little confused and borderline idealistic - shades of 60ism ('Southern Man' did not please Lynyrd Skynyrd all that much) come and go but I won't fault him for this. Still, it manages to derive quintessential pleasure for any music enthusiast. In comparison to past works, it harks back to the sounds and feel of his masterpiece 'Harvest.'

Young's musical tones often cross over into the country tradition. However, he has achieved something rock'n roll legends have rarely met. To me, his music dives in and out of the bluegrass sounds of American roots music in the tradition of the Louvin Brothers and other legendary American musical acts.

Forget the critics and comparisons. Sometimes we get so caught up in the technical side of things we forget the art behind the concept and idea. To avoid this trap and exercise in minutaie, I trust my own inner barometer; the shiver and imagery factor.

Music is a human endeavour. By tragic and joyous default it is vulnerable to flaws and elusive perfection. Its origins are in the heart and mind of a craftsman. In this mysterious vain, musical scholars attempt to explain how a classical masterpiece taps into a spiritual nerve center of the listener. Whether Beethoven or Vivaldi, their creations travel the space of time and straight into our souls. How's that for a cliche?

In any event, this is how I protect myself when determining if I like something. It may not tell me if it's any good but it sure will determine if I will pay $16.99 for a CD. Since I was already familiar with the work of Neil Young I took a calculated blind chance and dropped a twenty on the HMV counter.

I wasn't disappointed. While I was listening to the album I began to think about how musicians and writers reflect the spirit of a nation. I lamented the fact that many of our greatest musicians historically tend to avoid writing about Canadian themes lest they compromise U.S. sales - at least this is what I think without proof . Call it a hunch.

More subjectively, I think it may have something to do with overlooking Canadian themes under an avalanche of American culture. More and more we are finding Canadian musicians (The Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo etc.) finding confidence not just in their own abilities but their surrounding landscape. I guess we're slowly finding our way as we mature as a nation. Hopefully, musicians can find and draw inspiration from the place to which they were nourished; literally and figuratively - and get recognized for it. As I have written before, who is Canada's answer to Bruce Springsteen? Does Gordon Lightfoot meet the criteria?

It will always be tough for Canadian musicians to tackle our themes and market it for an international audience. It's easier for Springsteen to write about the Northeast and do well abroad because America naturally attracts the world to its dreams and hopes. Everyone wants to know what America is thinking about. Canada? It's not as straightforward.

Neil Young touches on the spirit of Canada and for this we should be thankful. Prairie Wind can just as easily be American but it screams an inner return to Canada.

Interestingly, Young represents something that transcends nationality. His art belongs to the North American experience. A line in 'Far From Home' entertains this suspicion:

'Walking down the Trans-Canada highway/I was talkin' to a firefly/tryin' to make my way to Nashville Tennessee.'

To some this means nothing. To me, it's a line that binds Young to two nations. In a way, makes you think about what we are all about without borders. Neil Young may have been born in Canada, but he belongs to the world now. Canada has come a long way since nomadic rock'n roll mavericks like Andy Kim, Joni Mitchell, The Band, The Guess Who -among others- and the grunge man with a peculiar soulful voice Mr. Young left their artistic prints on the Trans-Canada highway.

All this for $16.99? Why not? If you like being moved then what do you have to lose? National treasures always take you to a place never imagined. But hey, these are just the thoughts of a guy who sucks in an Eastern Canadian Shield wind.

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