One blogger’s journey into Neil Young’s back catalogue starts with his most contentious album: 1982’s Trans.
Where do I start with Neil Young?
I mean, seriously, where? Apart from a brief dalliance with 2010’s Daniel Lanois-produced Le Noise, none of Young’s post-millennial releases have sparked any kind of musical connection with me. Ditto his impressive and prolific back catalogue. I’ve tried “getting into Neil” — really I have — but Young has never connected with me in the way he clearly has with his legion of fans and admirers who weren’t around in the early 70s when After The Gold Rush and Harvest first came out. My approach with each of these attempts has been the same: leave Buffalo Springfield material aside and start with Young’s ’69 self-titled album and go chronologically from there. I tried this method in fits and starts up until Young pulled his music from all streaming services in 2015 and launched his own Pono platform. I then tried and failed to get further than Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere once his back catalogue re-appeared on Apple Music in 2016.
I started to think that the chronological approach was impeding me. The heftiness and weight of Young’s early records, the sacred texts of his canon, were perhaps intimidating me, taunting and teasing me about my credibility as a music aficionado for not immediately responding to them. Then I gave my head a good shake. “Bullshit,” I thought; there’s more than a small army of music fans and writers who haven’t an affinity for the man. Like his contemporary and friend Bob Dylan, Neil Young is a polarizing artist. Maybe my way into Young should be to wedge myself in through a polarizing fissure. What more contentious Neil Young album could there be to start my Youngian transformation with than 1982’s Trans?
Trans must have come off like a mid-life crisis upon its release. The then 37-year-old Young left Reprise Records (his home since embarking on a solo career) and signed a contract with Geffen that ostensibly gave him carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. And apparently, what Young wanted was to blow off his guitar-based, folk-rock ways and embrace the synthesizer-and-Vocoder superhighways bands like Kraftwerk were speeding down. Though it’s an idiosyncratic record in Young’s recorded chronology, in light of Young’s personal history, Trans makes a lot of sense. Privately, Young was focussing time, energy, and money on therapies for his son Ben, born with cerebral palsy and unable to communicate.
Trans’s exploration of how technology influences human-to-human communication, both as a bridge that connects us and a barrier that divides, was my perfect in. Influenced by Young’s interest in synthesizer technology as much as it was by his frustrations trying to communicate with his son, Trans made a lot of sense to me. I connected with it as a fan of electro-based, synth pop that challenges musical norms and as a teacher specializing in students with diverse learning needs. A dad dealing with the stigma of disability and “otherness”? I get it. An artist struggling to find a way to express his situation? I’m there.
Trans begins with a kind of false start. “Little Thing Called Love” was originally from an abandoned project called Island in the Sun, and though not penned as part of the overall Trans concept, its declaration that “Only love makes you choose / Only love brings you the blues” (coloured by chords Young would revisit ten years later on “Harvest Moon”) fits comfortably in the album’s overall framework. I hear the rollercoaster of emotions, the effervescent joy upon the birth of his child and the potentially crushing reality of his son’s diagnosis when Young sings “Wait a minute now, honey / Don’t be sad / This may be the best love you ever had.” From there, “Computer Age” is ours and Young’s introduction to an alienating world with familiar touchstones that grows increasingly foreign as its five-plus-minutes tick by. “Computer Love” describes a great divide, much like Trans’s album art depicts a futuristic vehicle pointed squarely to the future while in the next lane, a classic hot rod is heading back towards the past. By the time “We R In Control” squelches its way in, all power and direction has been ceded to computers and technology. Controlling lights, flights, and tellingly the “chief of staff”, it’s Trans’s most clear reference to what was likely Young’s sense of helplessness connecting with Ben at the time (Some four decades later, “Computer Love” could be read as a harbinger to Young’s own revolt and surrender to music streaming technology’s world dominance).
As cold and sterile as the vocoder-treated vocals of “Transformer Man” are, they’re also Trans’s most human element. Young’s emotions purely pour out when he sings (directly to Ben, one presumes) “Every morning / When I look in your eyes / I feel electrified by you.” By contrast, “Computer Cowboy” feels like Young is trying too hard to bridge his two musical halves. The song is passable and not without its charms, but lacks the virtue and sympathy that makes “Transformer Man” so effective. The same is true with “Sample and Hold”; it’s the closest thing to filler on Trans even with rhythms and melodies that feel five years ahead of their time.
After four computerized, synthed-up tracks, Young’s familiar vocal tones on “Hold On To Your Love” feel less jarring than you’d anticipate. Another hold-over from the Island in the Sun project, the song’s lyrics make most sense as part of Young’s overall vision for Trans: “Though you may feel tired and blue / The things you say / The things you dream you might do / Come true if you / Hold on to your love.” It’s not until “Mr. Soul”, Trans’s penultimate track, that the juxtaposition and contrast of musical styles click. Covering himself circa Buffalo Springfield, 1967, Young’s one-time examination of the effects of fame and fortune — “Is it strange I should change?” — echoes with renewed relevance and context.
Trans would be a very different (and perhaps less controversial?) album if it ended with “Mr. Soul”, but there’s no easy out of this album for listeners and Young alike. To close his journey through Trans’s future world, Young chose a song that references an ancient world. On its surface, “Like An Inca” feels like the most jarring of Island in the Sun’s hold-over tracks, but I contend it’s Trans’s secret weapon. All the way through my initial listen, I hadn’t made my mind up about Trans or Neil Young in general. I ping-ponged between pleasant surprise (“Little Thing Called Love” and “Transformer Man”) and casual indifference (“Computer Cowboy”). Even “Mr. Soul”, whose original version I hadn’t been familiar with prior yet still felt like a lifelong favourite, didn’t tip me over the edge towards loving and embracing Trans and Young the way “Like An Inca” did. And honestly, I can’t even pinpoint what it is about the song that resonates so strongly. It could be the hypnotic power of its repeating riff — Young’s unrelenting attempt to reach out to me, a non-believer, and bring me into his world. It could be its sheer incongruity with the eight preceding songs. Or it could just be that “Like An Inca” leaves me in awe that, some thirty-seven years in advance, Neil Young made an album that speaks to our modern world’s simultaneous reliance and disdain on technology and the ongoing struggle to make human-to-human connections using computers as our primary communication tools.
Where do I start with Neil Young? Here, with 1982’s Trans — an oft-misunderstood and misjudged album that’s admittedly never had an easy-to-navigate user interface. I pushed the button, though, and let the music kick open a door that had been heretofore closed to me. I don’t think I can confidently say I “get” Neil Young with just one record under my belt, but I’m getting closer than I ever imagined I would.
Where in the Youngian universe will I go next? Well, I already went with 1969’s Neil Young, and tried (and got nowhere) with Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere; I’ve had dates with 1970’s After the Gold Rush and 2010’s Le Noise, too. And though a chronological approach didn’t work for me in the past, given that I’m kind of fond of Trans’s idiosyncratic left-turn, my next stop is to follow Young across the bridge to the rockabilly world of 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’.
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