In 1974, Neil Young reunited with Crosby, Stills and Nash to record what was supposed to be the long awaited follow up to Déjà Vu, a record tentatively titled Human Highway. Two songs were completed, before Neil walked off never to return. Instead he invited a new line-up of Crazy Horse to visit him at the home of producer David Briggs, where soon they began recording the remaining tracks to what would turn out to be his next album, Zuma, a record that was met with almost universal praise amongst his many hard core fans (although one could say the same with regards to the majority of his ‘70s output). At last Young was attempting to make a record which represented how he sounded on stage.
First song “Don’t Cry No Tears” has that back to basics feel about it heard on the Tonight’s the Night album, with slightly wobbly vocals by Neil and guitars that sound as though they could go out of tune at any moment. “Danger Bird” has an ominous beginning, before settling into a groove that is as unpretentious as it is unsettling. Young’s guitar wavers between earth and heaven not knowing which it prefers. “Pardon My Heart” resembles CSNY, where his vocals occasionally remind the listener of Stephen Stills.
“Lookin’ for a Love” is Neil by numbers, and could be a shambolic version of the Eagles. “Barstool Blues” has more of those out of tune vocals Young is so famous for yet somehow always manages to get away with. The evocative “Stupid Girl” is rock meets stream of consciousness, with Neil and Co. seemingly expressing whatever comes to mind. Certainly Neil and Frank Sampedro’s guitars succeed in weaving around each other like a west coast Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood.
“Drive Back” is one of those songs that relies more on personality to make it work rather than any actual melodic much less artistic merit. Not so “Cortez the Killer”, Young’s extended, sprawling ode to Spanish conquest and the effect it had on Aztec culture. Neil’s almost cinematic guitar solo is appropriate as it is desolate and haunted.
Originally titled “Sailboat Song”, the fragile ballad “Through My Sails” (recorded at Young’s Maui retreat) was one of the songs completed for CSNY’s aborted third studio album. And while nothing worth writing home about, still the harmonies shine through, lifting the listener into a state of quiet meditation. It might be the odd one out, although it does make for a rather agreeable deviation from all of Neil’s somewhat depressing digressions, of which Zuma is considerably fraught with.
On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night are often regarded as two of Young’s bleakest albums, however Zuma isn’t all that far behind, at least in terms of style and sentiment. While not quite as ragged and downtrodden as those previous efforts might have been, it did see Neil return to loose, elongated guitar solos, not heard since Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a good thing in my estimation, and which has sustained his career to this day.
Whether the listener will enjoy this LP all depends on what sort of mood they’re in. What is certain is that it’s hardly the most cheerful of experiences – one that will either attract or defy the individual based on their own musical proclivity. One thing’s for sure, Neil Young never compromised.