If anyone has the right to keep on rockin’ in the free world, it’s Neil Young. Canada’s most celebrated triple-Scorpio attained pop icon status long ago, and he has lasted for four decades by alternating painfully honest lyrics with stripped-down, garage-y grooves. But Neil can get a little intense (if not downright depressing) at times, so trimming his latest career retrospective down to a single disc (plus a bonus DVD) keeps the number of Darvon moments to a minimum.
To start with, “Helpless” and “Needle and the Damage Done” are poignant, but they’re both downers that spotlight ol’ Neil’s whiny tendencies at their most annoying. “Heart of Gold” and “Cinnamon Girl” are preferable as classic rock fare to anything by Steve Miller, but they could’ve easily been penned by Mr. Jet Airliner himself. Yet “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and “After the Gold Rush” feature the sort of epic melodies that could only have come from Neil, reminding you that rock actually used to mean something. Then you get to “Southern Man,” and that’s when it hits you: Neil has songs. In 2004, the song’s still relevant: Substitute “Red State” for “Southern” and it’s déjà vu all over again. The fuzz-tone riff on “Hey Hey My My” is equally timeless, more than making up for the ho-hum Americana of “Comes a Time.”
It takes good songwriting to produce endearing classics, and even though Neil hasn’t had a hit in a while — the album concentrates heavily on 1969-’71, and the most recent song is thirteen years old — his old stuff still rocks. What’s especially scary about Greatest Hits is that it sounds perilously close in places to what Mos Def was trying to do on his new joint: achieve emotional resonance with minimalist guitar-based jams. Neil succeeds where Mos and others have failed.