Back in the mid-‘80s, Geffen Records sued Neil Young for not sounding like himself, because they couldn’t handle the fact he was just being himself. Ever since he followed up his biggest album (1972’s Harvest) with his bleakest (1974’s On the Beach), Neil has endured as the world’s most reluctant rock star: unpredictable, contrarian, always zagging when everyone—his label, his fans, even his bandmates—would prefer to zig. And though he answered his infamously eclectic ‘80s discography by more eagerly embracing an elder-statesman role in the ‘90s—whether producing sequels to his ‘70s classics or coronating his godfather-of-grunge status—his post-2000s work has struck a wobbly balance between crowd-pleasing classicism and unfettered eccentricity.
Sure, there’s nothing in Neil’s recent canon as stylistically outré as 1982’s synth-pop experiment Trans, or as self-consciously cheeky as 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’. But he has reframed his traditional acoustic/electric modes with high-concept hijinks, be it the eco-themed concept album Greendale or the sepia-toned recording-booth crackle of A Letter Home. Even as his work has turned more impulsively political—see: 2006’s Dubya-dissing Living With War—the rage has been tempered with a healthy dose of whimsy (which, in that album’s case, took the form of amateur choirs and cavalry horns). And often, his post-2000 output has toed the line between audacious and ridiculous: The previous four decades of epic guitar jams feel like mere warm-ups for 2012’s “Driftin’ Back,” which churns and drones for over 27 minutes. Next to that, the 18-minute grunge-blues grind “Ordinary People” feels like a pop single.
As that latter song exemplifies, a playlist of 21st-century Neil Young songs needs to come with some asterisks—“Ordinary People” was actually recorded with his brassy bar band The Bluenotes in 1988, but didn’t see the light of day until 2006’s Chrome Dreams II (with the carbon-dating Lee Iacocca reference intact). Neil has regularly dipped into his fabled stash of unreleased ‘70s and ‘80s-era songs on his post-millennial records, at times strategically deploying them like a game-saving immunity idol on Survivor. The otherwise slight 2000 album Silver and Gold climaxes with the stunning mid-‘70s holdover “Razor Love,” which mediates between his gentle Harvest hits and his hazy-headed Ditch Trilogy. And Neil’s best album of this century—the Daniel Lanois-produced solo-electric opus Le Noise—centers around the chilling travelogue “Hitchhiker,” another mid-‘70s obscurity that resurfaced in its original acoustic form when Neil released his “lost” 1976 album of the same name in the summer of 2017. In typically inscrutable Youngian psychology, navigating the 21st-century sometimes requires taking a journey through the past.