Good Neil Young albums begin with throwaway openings that are nevertheless lots of fun; you could fill a dandy quarter of a CD-R with Sleeps With Angels' "My Heart," Comes a Time's "Goin' Home," Time Fades Away's title track, and a handful of others. Chrome Dreams II's "Beautiful Bluebird" isn't one of them -- it's a reminder that, when he wants to, Young can still be mawkish in a melodious way. Don't laugh: it's some kind of achievement after good will and healthy sales. The proletariat concept album, Bush-bashing album, and Jonathan Demme-enshrined country-rock record are the kinds of modest achievement we expect from veterans who still read The New York Times and haven't forgotten how to plug their electric guitars into amps; Prairie Wind even became his first new album in more than a decade to be certified gold. I don't own a one, and I'm not too ashamed to confess that I've lost the tracks I've preserved after a hard drive meltdown a few months ago. I haven't paid much attention to him since "I'm The Ocean" proved too sloppy for Pearl Jam in 1995 (to their credit, they've absorbed its lessons, to commercial shortfall).
Chrome Dreams II's backstory is more interesting than the album itself, but its slapdash nature is good for Young; it reminds us that lots of his great albums, particularly Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom were cobbled together, indifferent to abstractions, "concepts," or any notions of gestalt that Young's concentration couldn't focus on. Its ramshackle charm feels earned. "The Believer" tunefully rewrites After the Goldrush's "I Believe In You" (and alludes to it in the chorus call-and-response vocals) for post-fiftysomethings. "Dirty Old Man" takes the "Piece of Crap" riff around town, gives it a Jagermeister shot, and forces it to drive home. It's a stupid song, but for Young "stupid" allows him to record essentialist statements beyond his self-important peers (Dylan, with all his newfound senescent grace, seems incapable of it).
Of course "Ordinary People" will get all the attention. After years of spotty bootleg appearances, it sprawls for nearly twenty minutes on an album incapable of supporting the song's conceptual ambitions. Despite visible signs of age (note the hearty "Lee Iaccoca people!" Neil shouts, a reminder that maybe he thumbed through Talking Straight in 1986 while admiring Ronald Reagan's Miss Liberty tribute on TV) it makes its pretensions pay off. Or stupidity -- Neil's ideas about "the people" might as well come from the lyrics to "Hands Across America," oblivious to Joseph Cotten's contemptuous dismissal in Citizen Kane. How reassuring that he's not settling for mere iconicity. Who cares that we're not sure how many new songs he's written for this album -- that he's still possessed by the spirit of "T-Bone" and "Welfare Mothers" at 93 or however old he is is a boon in this climate of Starbucks-ified boomer-rock.