It has become both fashionable and profitable for artists in the later stages of their careers to release albums comprised of old standards or covers of instantly recognizable Pop hits.
Leave it to Neil Young to follow that convention and then knock it upside its head. On Americana, Young resurrects Crazy Horse, his longtime and long dormant backing band and the foil for realizing some of his grimiest, grittiest Garage Rock fantasies, with the express purpose of revisiting some of America’s most beloved Folk odes, Blues tales and campfire singalongs.
The irony of the album’s title is that while Young retains the familiar lyrics to chestnuts like “Oh Susannah,” “High Flyin’ Bird,” “Tom Dula,” and “Jesus’ Chariot” (better known as “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”), he completely guts the songs’ classic melodies in favor of Crazy Horse’s noisy bluster and squall, reconfiguring the jaunty tunes to fit his well documented musical universe.
There is a seriousness of intent to Americana (Folk and Blues have long detailed the country’s ills in song and Young has selected an interesting set list in that context) but there is also a hootenanny jam quality to the sessions; the songs typically end with comments by Young and the band about the sweet chaos they’ve just created. The exceptions are fascinating; although the standard Crazy Horse murk and howl are evident on The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job,” Young and company retain the Doo-Wop hit’s famous backing vocals and melody lines, a pattern repeated on “Travel On,” “Wayfarin’ Stranger” and “This Land is Your Land” (because how many liberties can you take with Woody Guthrie?).
Young and Crazy Horse are having so much fun on Americana, it almost plays like a Jimmy Fallon sketch, but clearly the fun is in the performance and not at the expense of the song, although finishing with “God Save the Queen” (and a children’s chorus singing the American rewrite, “My Country ’Tis of Thee”) could easily be perceived as a pointed and appropriate political jab.
Whether playing anarchic deconstructionists or faithful translators, Americana is tattooed with Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s indelible and singular stamp.