Tonight’s The Night is Neil Young‘s 6th studio album. Counting the live Time Fades Away album it’s the 7th in his discography, recorded in 1973 but shelved until 1975, by which time he’d recorded and released a whole other album in the form of On The Beach. Who says stoners ain’t productive?
The period around this time in Young’s career is well-documented: His fourth album Harvest becomes an international smash, its down-home, pastoral acoustic sketches, good time bar band boogie and occasional orchestral flourishes striking a chord with millions of people, and whiny ol’ Neil suddenly finds himself the custodian of a hit album. A record company with at least one eye on the balance sheet is understandably keen for more, but Young, in an act of bold self-sabotage steers his musical output from the mainstream to the margins, from the middle of the road to the ditch.
So began his Ditch Trilogy, a series of three albums – Time Fades Away, On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night – that displayed a single bloody-mindedness to do as he pleased at whatever cost. Time Fades Away, for example, is a live document of a tour where he played wholly new material to sold out theatres and arenas keen to hear the whole of Harvest in the live setting. ‘Here’s one you’ve heard before,’ he’d announce to a jeering then cheering audience in the encores…and he’d play ‘Don’t Be Denied‘ for the second time that night.
If y’want the true essence of the artist in microcosm, look no further than these three albums. Every facet of his personality; the peacemaker, the confrontationalist, the political commentator, the grief-stricken musician, and every facet of his musical output; the acoustic troubadour with the asthmatic Marine Band harmonica, the wind blown one note soloist, the country pickin’, banjo bashin’ hippy and ham-fisted piano botherer is amongst those grooves. You knew all that already though.
I’ve spent a few nights recently in the company of Tonight’s The Night, to the point where it’s beginning to surpass On The Beach as my favourite Neil album. It’s very much a night time album, sleepwalking from the speakers in a fug of narcotic narcolepsy, vocals whispered and cracking, the band inhaling deeply before easing their way into the chords.
Right from the off you know you’re in for the long run. The title track (reprised, not for the first time in Young’s ouvre, at the end of side 2) is a slow blues, its pulsing bass and off-kilter (and mainly off-key) backing vocals dragging it to its conclusion.
Nils Lofgren’s bluesy, spidery guitar lines tip-toe and creep their way through the heavy air, non-flash yet essential to the record’s feel, providing the ambient atmospherics that slow the whole thing down.
The theme of the record; death from heroin, mainly, is reflected in the slow-moving, treacle-thick tracks and woozy, woolly, atmospherics. Side 2’s Albuquerque is the best of Neil Young in one song.
Neil Young – Albuquerque
It begins with that idiosyncratic slow chugging Neil Young groove, lazy pulls-offs and hammer ons played in Young’s unique clawhammer style, valve amps cranked up to the max but the volume low on the guitar. You can feel the power in those six strings. A subtle turn of the volume knob on Neil’s Les Paul could unleash howling fury at any point, yet he keeps it restrained and under control.
Chord changes take an age to come, Young slowing the band to a pedestrian pace. When he hits the titular phrase in the chorus, its usual four syllables is stretched and eee-long-gated to an impressive ten. ‘Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-al-bu-quer-que‘.
A chrome-coated weeping pedal steel, the ghost of the Flying Burrito Brothers vamps its way across the verses as Neil sings of Santa Fe and fried eggs and country ham and getting away from it all. Fame, fame, fatal fame, as someone else would sing a decade later. Neil wants away from it so much that he allows the pedal steel to take the lead at the appropriate point in the song, its eerie sliding glissandos emerging from between wheezing harmonica squeals to flood the tune with harmonious countryfied colour and life until the end. It’s a beauty.
Non-Compulsory Follow-Up Homework
Go and listen to REM‘s Country Feedback; the mood, the feel, the slow-burning gothic country blues of it all, and compare it to Albuquerque. Uh-huh.