“People my age, they don’t do the things I do”
By the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Neil Young was back in favour and releasing some of his finest albums since his ‘70s heyday. Young’s renaissance began in earnest with Freedom (1989), followed by the grungy Ragged Glory, (1990), the wistful Harvest Moon (1992), and the mournfully meditative Sleeps With Angels (1994). It’s no secret that the death of Kurt Cobain had cast a pall over Neil’s psyche (Cobain’s suicide note included a quote from Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black),” “…It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”), so much so that perhaps not since the passing of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten in 1972, had Young felt the need to express his feelings over such a tragic event.
Neil had first encountered Seattle rockers Pearl Jam in 1992 at the Bobfest concert held at Madison Square Garden NY, and joined them onstage at the MTV Awards the following year to perform “Rockin’ In The Free World.” Clearly a connection was forged, and so in 1995, at the behest of Young, Pearl Jam entered Bad Animals Studios in Seattle for two days of recording. The sessions proved so productive that a second two days were booked, resulting in enough material for a full length album.
The ensuing Mirror Ball is an LP without preconceptions. The first sounds we hear are those of cables being plugged into amps, before Young utters “No tuning, nothing!” And then they’re off. First track, the sea-shanty “Song X” belts out of your speakers with all the subtlety of Crazy Horse. The band had had hardly any rehearsal time, obviously the way Young likes it, since perfection has never been his goal anyway.
Neil, along with guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready mesh together to create their very own wall of sound, to the extent that it’s hard to discern who’s actually playing what. On “Act Of Love” the guitars collide and blister with abandon, before turning down the volume (slightly) during country-tinged “Truth Be Known.” They crash their way through a raucous “Big Green Country,” while the joyous “Downtown” sees Young singing about “There’s a place called Downtown/Where the hippies all go… Jimi’s playing in the backroom/Led Zeppelin on stage/There’s a mirror ball twirlin’/And a note from Page.” The sense of hippie nostalgia continues through “Peace And Love,” “I saw the dream/I saw the wake/We shared it all/But not the take,” and “Throw Your Hatred Down,” where Young stands as some sort of post-Woodstock reverend telling his disciples to “Throw your hatred down/Throw your weapons down.”
Arguably the best song is “I’m The Ocean,” a driving rocker fuelled by almost stream-of-consciousness lyrics by Young: “Voicemail numbers/On an old computer screen/Rows of lovers/Parked forever in a dream/Screaming sirens/Echoing across the bay/To the old boats/From the city far away.” As the song steams along, the momentum increasingly builds in dream-like intensity: “I’m not present,” Neil sings, “I’m a drug that makes you dream/I’m an aerostar/I’m a cutless supreme.”
“Scenery” is all moody atmospheric guitars in search of some long lost hippie horizon, while Neil brings out the pipe-organ for the brief final track “Fallen Angel,” a pithy poignant reprise of “I’m The Ocean.”
More than twenty years on, Mirror Ball still sounds just as fresh and immediate today as when it was first recorded. Flawed it might be, but then that’s life. Stop rehearsing, and start living.