Neil Young soars to previous heights on a Prairie Wind

By Oliver Mosier

After years of experimentation, Neil Young has finally returned to his roots. His latest album, Prairie Wind, is the third and final installment in his grand musical trilogy following Harvest (1972) and Harvest Moon (1992). Trilogies are usually difficult to complete, especially considering the fanfare of the first two installments. Just ask Francis Ford Coppola. Fortunately, Prairie Wind is no Godfather III.

This album is vintage Young; many of the tracks recall his early successes and, thankfully, forget his most recent disappointments. In the last fifteen years Neil Young has been anything but consistent, putting out albums like Mirror Ball and Are You Passionate? without a hint of his trademark continuity. Prairie Wind is certainly his most consistent effort since Harvest Moon.

For the Canadian rebel, the past few months have been a time when he has been able to place many things into perspective. This year alone, Young lost his father, a legendary Canadian sports writer, and nearly lost his own life from a potentially fatal brain aneurysm. Appropriately, Prairie Wind is dedicated to his dad. By his own admission, Young made this album quickly, in case it would be his last. Interestingly, eight of the ten cuts were recorded before his surgery. While he may not have completely captured the essence of what made the 1970s his decade, he certainly found what was missing in some of his previous endeavors.

The album was recorded in Nashville, the cradle of country music. Young called upon the country muses in search of the classic Nashville sound. Prairie Wind touches on many subjects that the folk rocker holds dear. “The Painter” evokes a somewhat mellow but still creative Neil Young. Songs like “Here for You” and “Far From Home” are aimed at his children and parents, respectively. The title track recalls his feelings of home and reminisces on many dreams. This song, like so many, fits directly into the country/folk mold, a mold that made Neil Young the father of grunge, instead of just another eccentric folk rocker.

In “He Was the King,” Young once again returns to a favorite subject: Elvis. If Elvis is the King, then Neil Young is the Man. Throughout the countless peaks and valleys in his career he has represented the everyman—simple and honest. Prairie Wind illustrates this in a way that previous records did not.

The most powerful track on the album is “This Old Guitar,” which speaks to anyone who has ever picked up a guitar. It is personal for Young, whose own 6-string once belonged to country star Hank Williams. His own musical lineage is very important to him, and he continues to play on such a valuable guitar because he believes it should not be stowed away in some glass case. The guitar becomes a musician’s friend, and a shelf would not be fitting for any friend.

Throughout the album, country legends resonate from his guitar. Fittingly, Prairie Wind was played for the first time in the country music cathedral, Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry radio show was once housed.

Prairie Wind is not Harvest, and someone looking to hear a nostalgic and self-serving Neil Young will be disappointed. Rather, the album pays homage to the artists and sounds that made an album like Harvest possible. In his classic song, “My My, Hey Hey, Out of the Blue,” Young utters the memorable lyrics, “It is better to burn out than to fade away.” After his recent flops, it looked as though the old maverick might finally fade away. Not so fast—this rocker may have been down a short time ago, but he isn’t out just yet.