For most acts, a Greatest Hits release seems like less an artistic retrospective of their favorite work than a collection of familiars for willing fans that can't be bothered to track down original releases just to skip over what they don't instantly recognize. And, hey, that's fine --- some groups downright depend on them, and most HIts compilations are worth buying if just because the band isn't worth delving further into. You might think I'm kidding, but I'm certain there are people who assume the Eagles have released two albums (the one with "Hotel California" and the vinyl on the cover, and the one without "Hotel California" with the blue cover); on the other side of the coin, do I really need to justify Creedence giving us the timeless gift of Chronicle?
But what do you do with a songwriter like Neil Young that's released over forty albums in as many years, from his beginnings in Buffalo Springfield through a stint characterizing his Elvis-like uncle as the Shocking Pinks and more attempts at commercial suicide in the '80s than most new-wave experimenters combined? He's had hit singles along the way, but unlike the Eagles, he never relied on them to stay relevant or keep his audience. You see, Neil Young constitutes a side of rock --- even if you could never corner him into the genre --- that naturally and intrinsically evades releases like this. Hell, even his only other compilation (surprising in and of itself), 1977's Decade, required two discs to properly encapsulate the first ten years of a career that has since added another unpredictable twenty-eight.
Now, of course Young recognizes that after such unusual longevity and prolific output, a collection is required to give newcomers a door to his intimidatingly expansive catalogue. Decade did a terrific job at the same task, but obviously cut off never the end of his only decade-long commercial run --- which, for most casual fans, merely means that it doesn't include the four songs that end Greatest Hits. The problem becomes that they're the only post-'77 tracks to make the cut here --- and four of only five ("Only Love Can Break Your Heart" being the other) not already on Decade. Perhaps the uncommercial tangents of his post-'77 are the reason Young waited so long to attempt another record like this, but four tracks spanning almost thirty years? It might seem unreasonable even if you haven't forgotten the album's title, and it's the kind of compromise that slightly hinders an otherwise solid portrayal of the man at his accessible best.
Not following? I can't label any collection of music so inspiringly singular and timeless "superfluous," but even with the now glaring omissions of these final tracks (not to mention a slew of latter-day triumphs that could've filled a whole 'nother disc: "Change Your Mind," "Red Sun," "Are You Passionate," "Fuckin' Up," "Philadelphia," "Unknown Legend," "Scenery," etc.), Decade is still the far better choice for those sincerely wanting to not only hear tracks that got played on the radio more than the rest, but to understand the man, his music and how he's been able to spend almost his entire life creating it. It didn't only include those popular hits, but glimpses of his start, rare material that filled gaps (including the side-lined album, Homegrown) and obsessor-favorites like "Cortez the Killer" and "Tired Eyes."
And that's where things get hazy here. Young's legacy is just as much built on his stubborn need to destroy preconceptions of his art as the songs themselves, and it's impossible for any single disc to accurately compress hundreds of songs while taking into account large segments of time that most everyone except Young would like to pretend don't exist (Re-Ac-Tor, Old Ways, Everybody's Rockin', Landing on Water. . . the list goes on).
It's especially hard when sticking to flimsy rules --- songs were chosen, according to Young, "based on original record sales, airplay, and known download history" --- that seem so un-Neil, it almost makes the whole thing seem like a concession, albeit a small one given the scope of his career, from a man that doesn't have that capability in him.
So yes, with the exception of "Tell Me Why" and "Sugar Mountain" (and possibly "Don't Let It Get You Down" and "Tonight's the Night"), if you've heard it more than once on your local classic rock station, you're likely to find it here. Though by its own limitations it remains far more accessible than Young's catalogue has the right to appear, each of these sixteen tracks represents a key phase in his continual evolution: as a sensitive folkie ("Helpless," "Comes A Time"); clumsy political activist ("Ohio," "Southern Man"); country balladeer ("Heart of Gold," "Old Man"); grunge proto-type ("Hey Hey, My My," "Rockin' in the Free World"); anti-heroin advocate ("Needle and the Damage Done"); classic rock main-stay (the epic twenty-minute opening duo, "Like A Hurricane," "Cinnamon Girl"); beautiful absurdist ("After the Goldrush"); and poignant romantic ("Heart of Gold," "Only Love Can Break Your Heart"). That you're still only getting about 1/20th of the picture might explain why I'm spending this entire review discussing the politics of a release like this instead of dissecting the music --- which always has, and will continue to, speak for itself.
And that's why I still recommend this album with a wild fervor. It's certainly not, like most of its kind, a replacement for a catalogue of inconsistent albums;
rather, it's a light stepping stone, one with far more glaring omissions than even a box-set could contain, yet nevertheless a compelling, accessible, poignant and often brilliant collection from Canadian's greatest songwriter and one of rock's most evasive and singular personalities.
There might be more "authentic" Neil Young in "Ambulance Blues" than a thousand "Heart of Gold's," but every phase of Young's musical evolution has its place and its fans; besides, I doubt any of us started at "Borrowed Tune" and went from there. Learning to love a track like "Hurricane" or even "Cowgirl in the Sand" can go a long way in "getting" his other work, and even if not, there's not much to regret about the purchase; hate his "weird tendencies" all you like, it's hard to deny the beauty of inclusions like "Gold Rush," "Needle" and "Comes A Time."
To its biggest credit, Greatest Hits makes it easier for complete strangers of his work to become attached than any single disc or LP before it, and as such isn't as superfluous as this review might let on.
But to stop at the incredibly limited scope of Greatest Hits is the real danger; with a retrospective so unblemished, it can be easy to assume that this is the best and most creative of what he's had to offer --- but, again, this is a stepping stone and far from the cliff notes to the whole story. As Neil once said of "Heart of Gold" in particular, a lot of the selections here are merely the kind of material that "put him in the middle of the road" --- before he, having grown bored with it, "headed for the ditch." "A rough ride," he ingeniously concludes, "but I saw more interesting people there."
-Scott Reid, January 13, 2005