Neil Young – Tonight’s The Night: Round 38 – Tom’s Selection

The mid 70s were an interesting time for popular music, not that I can remember much of it first hand, due to being five at the time…as opposed to off my head on drugs! Of those records that have stood the test of time, it seems as though a disproportionate number of them are bleak, harrowing, doom laden evocations of the human condition. Maybe these records document the point in time when the hippy dream turned sour, the idealism of the late 60s and early 70s giving way to self-doubt, cynicism and suspicion. Maybe the hippies had nowhere left to go but here. Ironically, seeing as he was the arch anti-hippy, this trend may have been kick started by Lou Reed’s 1973 rock opera, Berlin, which is just about as dark as an album can get and surely hugely influential (although you never can tell about influence, can you Nick!). Whatever, in the next couple of years there followed a slew of similarly unsettling offerings such as Gram Parson’s Grievous Angel, Big Star’s 3rd and Joni Mitchell’s Hissing of Summer Lawns. Artists were experimenting musically and thematically and were really challenging their fan-base in the process. It seems as though many of these records were poorly received in their day but they make for captivating listening all these years on and, to me, often sound far more interesting than their bigger selling precursors. Possibly the epitome of this phenomenon is Tonight’s the Night, Neil Young’s most ragged, tortured and, arguably, finest LP.

First a confession. I have never really ‘got’ Neil Young. This is strange considering I have a ridiculous number of Neil Young albums (after all, there are a ridiculous number of Neil Young albums to have). I have always suspected a case of ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about his records; to my mind they often don’t go anywhere particularly interesting – a guitar workout lasting 10 minutes is pleasant enough but when the riff is so simplistic and linear (see Cowgirl in the Sand, Down By the River, Southern Man, Like a Hurricane), it can all get a bit monotonous. In comparison to, say, Halleluwah by Can which twists and turns and goes to all sorts of surprising places in its 20 odd minutes, I never found all that much to discover in Neil Young albums. But I kept buying them because I kept reading about how they were so good. The next one was going to be THE ONE. But it never was. Then I bought Tonight’s the Night…and then I stopped buying Neil Young albums!

It was obvious from the off that this one was the real deal. The history of the album, the circumstances that led to it being the work it is, is well documented. Suffice to say, Young was in a pretty bad place going into making Tonight’s the Night…and it shows. And that is what makes it such a compelling listen. The songs teeter on the brink of falling apart throughout the album; they are raw, wounded and as vulnerable as the man who wrote them. Listening to Tonight’s the Night recently, I once again find myself wondering whether an album this messy would even get released in this age of studio perfection and computer technology. Having recently made two mega-sellers in Harvest and After the Goldrush, Neil Young must have had pretty much carte blanche at Reprise at the time and, whilst artists who have overwhelming power have often made appalling records, in this case such clout was surely necessary in getting it released – after all, the album only saw the light of day two years after it was recorded! Listening to it today makes me wonder about those decision makers in the big record companies. Alright, Tonight’s the Night was never going to sell as many copies as Harvest, but its tarnished brilliance is so hard to deny that it would have to be an inordinately cynical ear to turn it down.

There is little point singling out individual tracks as they really need to be heard as part of the whole. Young’s triple LP best of, Decade, includes the title track and Tired Eyes but neither of these songs make half as much sense as they do when heard on the album itself. As Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh put it, ‘This is Young’s only conceptually cohesive record, and it’s a great one.’ Me, I’m glad I persevered with Young and, who knows, maybe one day I’ll go back to and fully appreciate all those other albums of his I’ve purchased over the years. But even if I never listen to one of his other records again, I know Tonight’s the Night is one album I’ll never grow tired of.

Nick listened: Tom introduced this by saying, twice, “Nick will hate this”, and describing it as (paraphrasing rather than verbatim) “the most rubbishly performed, sung, played, and recorded record ever”. He also said (verbatim) “This is the only Neil Young album that I own that I like. I own eight Neil Young albums.”

Well, I didn’t hate it. I own about four Neil Young albums (Harvest, Gold Rush, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and Rust Never Sleeps) and I quite like all of them. I quite like Neil Young, in a completely non-committal way, in that I think he’s a good songwriter, decent guitar player, and interesting, charismatic singer. I didn’t think Tonight’s The Night was badly played, sung, or recorded – certainly Neil’s vocals go a little further off-piste a little more frequently than on other records I know by him, but it was never monstrous or offensive – if anything, it was kind of touching for him to be clearly reaching beyond himself, writing songs and melodies outside his range. Neil’s tremulous, cracking vocals, if anything, accentuated the emotional heft of these songs about the deaths of his friends.

Rob listened: I liked this a lot. I rarely delve back beyond 1977 but many of the records I’ve bought in the last 15 years or so have a clear and direct lineage with the music that came from America in the midst of her post-Sixties comedown. Tom preceded ‘Tonight’s The Night’ by playing ‘Brute Choir’ by Palace Music. The two records could have been recorded in the same year. Neil Young’s songs here, perhaps simply as a result of their simplicity and honesty, sound as fresh and raw as the day he wrote them. Quiet, meaningful albums tend to get crushed like so many wheel-broken butterflies at DRC meetings where, truth be told, we like to talk more than we like to listen. ‘Tonight’s The Night’ had our rapt attention and rightly so.

Graham listened: Not sure what happened to the incredibly well-crafted review I left last week but here is a repeat summary. I also quite like Neil Young but have never sought out any of his records. I’ve considered it but then I’ll see him singing live on tv and pause for thought. After Tom’s introduction (which may have been a clever ploy for future use) I was expecting a bit of a ramshackle mess. What we got was something sincere, sensitive and captivating.

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