Neil Young’s on the road again with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, reliving his days as just another guy in a band. At the same time, a gentle tune on his new solo album remembers sixties rock’s ragged glory and reflects on that era’s friendships and excesses. Its innocence is striking, but there’s one problem: The song is called “Buffalo Springfield Again,” and it’s about the group he was in before CSN&Y.
Young probably isn’t the easiest guy to be in a band with. He’s always been a mercurial musician with one foot on his distortion pedal and one foot out the door on the way to his next project. As a result, he’s spent his career caroming from Crazy Horse to the Stray Gators and into CSN&Y reunions on a restless musical walkabout that’s included detours into country, blues, and even synthesizer-driven pop.
His new Silver & Gold (Reprise) is a retrenchment that returns him to the reflection of albums like Harvest and Harvest Moon. Hushed and spare, it couldn’t be more different from his last, loud albums with Crazy Horse or the delicate harmonies he’s performing on the road with CSN&Y. But “Buffalo Springfield Again,” which conjures up an idealized state of rock-band camaraderie with lines like “I’d just like to play for the fun we had,” points to one of the few constants in his career: his restless search for a new way to reflect on an idealized past. More often than not, that past is heavily mythologized – the guys in Buffalo Springfield never actually seemed to like each other all that much – but that’s not the point. The thread that runs through almost all of Young’s work is the desire to get back to before the gold rush.
On Young’s first albums, the past he plumbed was that of the counterculture, and After the Gold Rush has been heard as a funeral dirge for the hippie dream. Later, he tried to get back to the idea of an early America he never lived in by looking back to rockabilly on Everybody’s Rockin’, and celebrating down-on-the-farm values on the country-oriented Old Ways. Even some of his politics – he co-founded Farm Aid and supported Reagan – have been strikingly traditionalist.
In the latter half of the nineties, Young allowed himself the unappealing luxury of looking backward as a legend: 1996’s Broken Arrow had the bogus simplicity of Restoration Hardware ad copy, and his soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Year of the Horse was overblown even by guitar-god standards. In contrast, Silver & Gold is potent, partly because the idyll it pines for is far enough removed to be beguiling but not far enough to let Young become bombastic. Its stories are of homecomings (“Good to See You”) and reunions (“Daddy Went Walkin’ ") rather than tragedies or conquistadors. Its modest instrumentation merely serves to complement his impressionistic lyrics, and Young sings in a stretched, quavering voice that wrings emotion even out of simple lines like “But I got faith in you / It’s a razor love that cuts clean through.”
On Silver & Gold, the past is personal – even sixties icons like Buffalo Springfield are remembered in terms of what they meant to Young. It’s the sound of a man looking back but shying away from speaking to his generation – or even another one as he did when he played with Pearl Jam – and speaking, quietly but firmly, for just another guy in a band.