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Leave it to Neil Young to give streaming songs a whole new meaning with a new album, “Before and After," out Friday.
Young delivers reinventions of 13 deep tracks as one continuous piece of mostly acoustic music, with no breaks, over 48 minutes. The tracks appear to have been recorded on Young's solo 2019 live tour but are presented here as a single piece of music with no audience applause.
The technique creates a new, cohesive narrative by weaving together songs from disparate points over a 54-year span. It also puts the songs in a new light, placing the 78-year-old Young’s voice with all of its aging, aching beauty front and center.
Anyone hoping to hear Young jamming out new transitions from one song to the next, a la the Grateful Dead, will be disappointed. Instead, a guitar strum here or a harmonica note there keeps the musical ball in the air.
“I’m the Ocean,” originally recorded with Pearl Jam on “Mirror Ball” in 1995, is dramatically reworked and sets the mood as the opening track. Three lesser-known Buffalo Springfield songs from the 1960s are the oldest tracks, with the album closer “Don’t Forget Love” from 2021’s “Barn” the most recent.
In between, there are songs Young first recorded with his longtime band Crazy Horse and a deep cut from one his most famous albums, 1970's “After the Goldrush." The most obscure song, “If You've Got Love,” has never appeared on an album until now.
As the album trails off with Young’s plaintively repeating “Don’t forget love,” in the final track of the same name, it feels like both an exhortation and a lament, a call for hope tinged with despair. It likely won't be the last official recording the prolific Young releases, but it could stand as a fitting final musical statement.
Still, “Before and After” is far from essential Neil Young. It's more of a late-career curiosity. And it will likely please his most devoted fans who will appreciate Young shedding new light in a beautifully stark way on some rarities that otherwise would remain deeply buried in his vast catalog.
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