Even for an artist with the mercurial track record of Neil Young, this has been a pretty strange year. Since turning 68 last November, Young has become a tech startup figurehead, an enemy of Canadian conservatives and oil companies, a second-time author, and a watercolor artist. He’s done a European tour with a modified Crazy Horse, U.S. shows all by his lonesome, and recorded a no-fi covers collection with Jack White. And perhaps most notably, he’s divorcing his wife of 36 years, and has been spotted canoodling with a notable ex-mermaid.
Amid that manic activity, the high concept of Storytone barely raises an eyebrow. Ten tracks recorded live in front of a 92-piece orchestra and choir or a jazz big band, the project doesn’t fit neatly within either the acoustic or electric categories that have been the magnetic poles of Young’s career. But it also calls back to some odd moments from his discography: the orchestrated excesses of “A Man Needs a Maid” and “There’s a World” from Harvest, with a dash of 1988’s largely forgettable This Note’s for You. Once again, he’s fallen in love with the actress, and only a symphonic scale will do.
Unlike the Voice-o-Graph pops and crackles of A Letter Home, which seemed like a classic Neil joke on the heels of his fidelity-obsessed Pono pitch, Storytone spares no sonic expense, with the arrangements set to maximum lush. So maybe call it A Little Touch of Schmeil in the Night, even if the songs only sound like standards and Young is far from your typical crooner. A set of 10 songs predominantly concerned with the withering of old love and the promise of new—and, as such, haunted by his recent romantic tabloid escapades—Storytone is unabashedly melodramatic and earnest, occasionally sounding more like the passions of a 17-year-old instead of someone on the brink of their seventies.
Unfortunately, aside from placing that unorthodox warble against a velvety backdrop, Storytone plays it straight, often veering into the deep schmaltz of a Vegas revue. The arrangements, by Michael Bearden (who has worked with Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga) and Chris Walden (an arranger for Michael Bublé and “American Idol”), are exquisitely produced but hollow, gilding the songs without adding any thoughtful counterpoint. “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?”, Neil’s latest eco-anthem, is given a dark, cinematic urgency, and the light countrypolitan stomp of “When I Watch You Sleeping” recalls the rustic sweep of 2005’s Prairie Wind, but more typical are the harp and chime twinkles applied without subtlety to “Tumbleweed” or the Navy Pier blooze of “Say Hello to Chicago”.
Helpfully, you can assess these additions thanks to Young providing solo versions of each track on the album’s deluxe edition—sparse near-demos on guitar, piano, and ukulele that come closer to the intimate sound of his recent, rambling theatre sets. Stripped down, the dark, doubtful elements of “Plastic Flowers” or “Say Hello to Chicago” come to the fore, Young’s tenor sounding vulnerable instead of overmatched. Here, the contradiction of putting a protest song against fracking and fossil fuels right next to a song called “I Want to Drive My Car” is somewhat resolved, as the latter gets a hushed version that makes Young’s autophilia sound more like an embarrassing addiction than a passion. But the solo versions of the more PDA material in the album’s back half make something of a case for their fancier counterparts, leaving nothing to hide valentine lyrics unavoidably about Daryl Hannah (the “A Man Needs a Mermaid” joke writes itself).
Despite the dual versions, Storytone never finds a comfortable middle ground: the orchestral versions too maudlin, the solo versions over-sharing. More so than the goofily overwrought Harvest tracks with the London Symphony Orchestra, the flaws of Storytone throw back to Young’s restless ’80s (or 2002’s Are You Passionate?), where genres were meticulously recreated but often a poor fit for his songwriting and performing strengths. For an artist who can make an orchestral roar with Old Black or twist an emotional knife on a pump organ, the extra gloss is subtraction by addition.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1xVXjyB