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After about a decade's preoccupation with making big noises with the likes of Pearl Jam and perennial collaborators Crazy Horse, Neil Young settles in for the winter of his content. Silver & Gold is an open hearth warming up the cabin while the wind howls outside.
Young's tenor, getting more ragged with age, may be the least satisfying musical element in a production that's as smooth as it is lean. At the same time, though, this collection of love ballads doesn't demand a polished singer. As he struggles to reach or hold a note, he mirrors the struggle of everyday folks to articulate their feelings to one another. That's what the 10 songs on Silver & Gold are really all about, a reflection on commitment, romance and other relationships from the perspective of a person who wonders how much he's missed by letting work consume him.
Young sets the theme in the opening tune, "Good to See You," in which the protagonist returns from a journey to proclaim, "When I'm lookin' down on you, I feel like I know what my life is for." The kind of simple lyrical rumination that puts career pursuit in perspective.
Take "Buffalo Springfield Again." When Young reflects on his former band and the way it fell apart ("We were young and we were wild/It ate us up"), it's looking past the ambitions that caused the split and toward the feelings that drew them together in the first place. For Young, it's a long-overdue bit of reexamination, and the song perfectly captures the need to revisit old relationships, something that flares up in even the least nostalgic people.
The band (mostly a quartet featuring Memphis legends Spooner Oldham and Duck Dunn on keyboards and bass, drummer Jim Keltner and co-producer Ben Keith on steel guitar) and backup vocalists (Keith, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris) provide an uncluttered, intuitively sympathetic accompaniment that keeps the focus on Young's emotional intimacy. Piano notes flow liquidly, cymbals wash like little waves, and an echo-drenched snare sounds a like a thousand miles of empty blacktop as Young delivers his most coolly passionate vocal on "Razor Love," another celebration of the home fires ("On the road, there's no place like home").
Despite its homegrown, spontaneous atmosphere, the album actually took years to record as Young went back and forth on how to approach each song. In fact, the title tune has been around since 1982 and was recorded with about a dozen different backups over the years before Young settled on the Spartan version included here, featuring nothing but his voice, guitar and harmonica. His notorious perfectionism pays big dividends on Silver & Gold. It's hard to recall another Young album that could support this song's cracker-barrel wisdom about the value of human relationships ("Our kind of love never seems to get old/It's better than silver and gold").
Still, it's not all sweetness and light. "Daddy Went Walkin'" seems like a fairly happy tune about how "daddy" did a bunch of simple things -- taking a walk, chopping wood -- but the chorus hints that this is a memory of something long gone: "Old man crossin' the road/You gotta let him go." So when he drawls about how "Mama's waitin' at the top of the hill" and "Oh, the stories they'll tell/When he holds her," things get complicated. It's a greeting that seems a little too exuberant for someone returning from a morning constitutional.
Young saves the darkest song, "Without Rings," for last. A fatalistic ode to the doomed nature of relationships, it's hard not to laugh as he sings in an atypically low voice, "My software's not compatible with you." But that's just a bit of gallows humor, an attempt to lighten up the ultimate desolation of a line like, "The road we used to ride/has flowers pushin' through the dotted line" -- something that Young, judging by the bulk of the themes here, doesn't want to be his final valediction.