Album Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse's 'Americana'

Behind America’s ancient folk songs lurks rather more ambiguity than is immediately apparent in the straightforward, often-sanitized versions you learned at camp or in school (you know, back when schools still offered music classes). There’s a darkness underlying many of those songs, and though they seem now like quaint anthems of manifest destiny, many of them deal were expressions of loneliness, death and ruin.

Neil Young unearths that side of America’s folk heritage on “Americana” (Reprise), his first album with Crazy Horse since “Greendale” in 2003. Where that was a song cycle with an overt narrative thread, “Americana” has no obvious message: it’s just Young and the band at their fiercest on songs you know that you know, including “Oh! Susannah,” “Clementine” and “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain,” listed here as “Jesus’ Chariot,” a reference to its origins as a slave spiritual.

Yet these aren’t campfire sing-alongs. Young and Crazy Horse play with thunderous abandon, with piles of blaring guitars spilling over the sides of unyielding rhythm parts. The band rides a bristling guitar vamp on “Clementine” (on which Young resurrects the verse about kissing Clementine’s sister), and turns the murder-ballad “Tom Dula” into an 8-minute stomper with the musicians chanting Dula’s name between verses like they’re part of a torch-wielding mob gathered outside his cell.

Young makes an illustrative lesson of “God Save the Queen,” interpolating the lyrics with “America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee),” which Samuel Francis Smith wrote to the same melody in 1831. He displays a measure of restraint on the spooky “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” and his take on “This Land Is Your Land” — perhaps this year’s most-covered song, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth — is as stirring as any version you’ll hear.

Not everything works: Enthusiasm aside, a cover of the 1958 doo-wop hit “Get a Job” plods with little of the nimble grace of the original, for example. More often, though, “Americana” is an essential collection of exactly what the title says, as Young revives songs that are deeply embedded in the expansion and evolution of America, both geographically and as an idea.

— Eric R. Danton

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