When Neil Young described Time Fades Away as being his worst album ever, he wasn’t kidding. A live album that acted as a dysfunctional memento to the tour of the same name, it was mostly ridiculed and dismissed by the majority of critics at the time of its release, and one which even Young himself seemed to want expunged from his oeuvre. But no matter what Neil may have said or might think, Time remains an absorbing, albeit dislocated document and one which only makes sense after hearing his next two records, On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night.
For anyone who bought this LP expecting another Harvest must have been bitterly disappointed. Songs such as “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” increased Neil’s audience tenfold it’s true; however Young had no intention of being pigeonholed as a country-rock James Taylor, hence this chaotic, sprawling mess of a record, defying those who thought they knew him. As Young explained: “I’m not that laid-back figure with a guitar. I’d rather keep changing and lose a lot of people along the way. If that’s the price, I’ll pay it.”
We kick off with the title track, a song which represented some of the sloppiest playing and singing of Neil’s CV to date. His backing band, The Stray Gators are adequate at best, full of nervous energy behind Young’s awkward, out of tune vocals. The delicate “Journey Thru the Past” has classic written all over it, even if the audience probably didn’t know it at the time. With only Neil on piano it’s a tune that definitely grows on the listener and deserves repeated listens. The same goes with “Yonder Stands the Sinner”, where before the performance starts we hear the familiar voice of David Crosby announce “This’ll be kind of experimental, but it will be good though.”, which was probably his own way of saying ‘we have no idea what we’re doing, we haven’t rehearsed, so let’s hope it all works out’. To be honest, it isn’t all that much of a song. Young’s clearly struggling to sing the high notes, apparently suffering from laryngitis, hence the last minute call to Crosby and Graham Nash to join him on the tour.
“L.A.” is a referential number, with Young in full prophetic mode, singing his sermon from the high mountain, talking of smog and earthquakes. The main riff is reminiscent of “Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown”, which is probably why it’s so appealing. “Love in Mind” is another one of those sensitive singer-songwriter compositions audiences in the early 1970’s couldn’t seem to get enough of.
Side two begins with “Don’t Be Denied”, a song which sounds as though it should have been on “Tonight’s the Night”, what with its slapdash arrangement and half-arsed performance by all involved. During the chorus, Young’s voice isn’t exactly the finest, but we’ll forgive him for that, since the song has enough feel and texture to make it work (mind you, God knows how).
On “The Bridge” we have yet another one of those esoteric confessional piano/harmonica ballads Young is famous for. And fortunately it’s short, because I just don’t think I could stand listening to someone whining on for six or seven minutes about all their cerebral worries, not to mention how much they love their misses.
By the time we get to the grungy “Last Dance”, the last track, Neil’s vocals have been shot to smithereens, which is a shame, though Crosby and Nash are there to keep the bell tower from falling. The song itself is a cross between “Wooden Ships” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”, which means that the listener won’t be too shocked with what they’re listening to.
Along with the aforementioned On the Beach, Time Fades Away has often been spoken of as some sort of Holy Grail for Neil Young collectors. Personally I beg to differ. In my estimation the former LP is far superior, and the one you really want to hear, and will likely draw the most satisfaction from. Not only was Time an act of clear self-indulgence, but as a way for Neil to tell his fans to expect the unexpected, something which separates the true believers from those who simply follow.