After five decades, dozens of studio records, and a near-constant trickle of live and archival releases, it’s hard to get excited about a new Neil Young album. A new Neil Young and Crazy Horse album? That’s a different story. Not merely Young’s backing band, Crazy Horse are legends in their own right, their distorted plod powering many of Young’s greatest records while inspiring his noisiest guitar heroics. “Colorado,” out Friday, is Young’s first album with the trio in seven years, though longtime guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro has been swapped for E Street Band member (and ‘70s Young collaborator) Nils Lofgren.
“Think of Me” opens “Colorado” not with Crazy Horse’s signature roar, but with a blast of harmonica and acoustic guitar. Perhaps the absence of Sampedro, around whose limitations the band’s narrow-but-deep style coalesced, explains why “Colorado” is lighter on grungy epics than 2012’s “Psychedelic Pill,” instead leavening churning rockers with the delicate piano ballads and hushed folk of Young’s solo work. Only on the 13-minute “She Showed Me Love” does the band really pound a riff into the ground, as Young castigates the “old white guys trying to kill Mother Nature” before letting his screeching guitar solo do the talking.
Climate change is on Young’s mind throughout “Colorado.” The lifelong environmentalist is plenty mad, but he still believes we can save ourselves, shouting out the younger generation of climate activists and declaring “When I look at the future, I see hope for you and me.” “Rainbow of Colors,” meanwhile, puts pro-immigration sentiments to a sing-along chorus tailor-made for marches and protests.
While Young once crafted verses that were cryptic puzzles, he has become increasingly literal-minded in recent years — fine for sloganeering, but a little dodgier when he turns to personal matters. “Eternity” groaningly underlines lyrics about “the train of love” with a goofy “click, clack, clickety-clack” refrain, while “Olden Days” somehow has less to say about aging than the songs Young wrote on the subject in his 20s. He allows himself some psychedelic abstractions on “Milky Way,” a “Cowgirl in the Sand”-type dirge in which love inspires the same wide-eyed awe as the cosmos.
More than any of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s past classics, “Colorado” recalls Young’s last album, 2017’s “The Visitor.” Like that record, “Colorado” is a politically charged, uneven release that at its best comes close enough to recapturing Young’s past glories to satisfy his diehard fans. And if you don’t like it? Well, there’ll probably be another one next year.