If “Prairie Wind” were Neil Young’s first posthumous album, it would have been a grand one. Though the idiosyncratic folk-rock icon still lives, the overcooked sense of his mortality looms heavily over this record.
When tempered by delicate melodies, the album’s themes can be downright touching (“This Old Guitar”), though, as often as not, the music isn’t enough to keep the tracks from going overboard.
Because of its distinctly country-rock sound, “Prairie” has been touted as the last in a trilogy begun by 1972’s masterpiece “Harvest” — which practically invented alt-country — and 1992’s return-to-form “Harvest Moon.” The first showed a self-conscious youngster brooding on his expansive future; the second revisited that character, two decades years later, taking stock of what passed by.
“Prairie Wind” provides an interesting conclusion: Young recorded this album just before his ultimately successful surgery for a brain aneurysm. Everywhere he is aware of the chance he might die: Has he accomplished all he wanted? Has he made a difference in the world? Has he done right by God?
“This Old Guitar,” the best song on the album, is a whispered ode to the singer’s musical life. Emmylou Harris’s understated, angelically sweet backup harmony helps the track achieve enough expressiveness to overcome the simplicity of his straight-forward self reflection.
The recording’s lonely performance channels the gentleness of 1993’s “Unplugged” album, which documented Young’s translation of aged classics into a newfound acoustic idiom. (It’s not a coincidence that the guitars reference the ever-wonderful hook from “Harvest Moon,” a song played to perfection on “Unplugged.”)
The same beauty drives “Falling Off the Face of the Earth.” Behind the pop-song poetry (“It’s a precious thing/ The time we share together”) are pedal steel and acoustic guitars that have the same shaky, near-transcendent sweetness as “Heart of Gold” and “Out on the Weekend” from “Harvest.”
When Young does pass away, the album’s closer, “When God Made Me,” will be received as a touching theological meditation. It’s a touching finale, and one of the album’s better tracks. Its lyrics, which read like a religious children’s book, are redeemed by a solemn piano-and-vocal hymn accompanied by the Fisk University Jubilee Choir.
It seems unavoidable that Young’s combative edge has been sanded away by time. The token political track, “No Wonder,” lacks the anger of “Keep On Rockin’ In the Free World” and the anthems before and since. The songwriter seems merely resigned and conflicted about Sept. 11 and the Iraq War.
He makes a sly reference to the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” telethon, at which he performed a beautiful version of Lennon’s pacifist anthem “Imagine.” Weighing the benefit of his contribution to the Sept. 11 victims against the politicalization of the tragedy, he doesn’t seem to know where he ends up.
The title track, “Prairie Wind,” has a similar imbalance. Though the song is supposed to be a touching tribute to his father, it lacks that intangible affecting quality that’s necessary for such a serious endeavor.
The cantankerous artist defies convention by intentionally choosing a less sensational presentation for the song. The lyrics are more about living as his father taught him than mere remembrance — almost as if he composed the song in deliberate contrast to the cloying songs of paternal admiration.
As a result of its upbeat theme, bright brass and middle-of-the-road backup vocals, the song strays into the dangerous waters of adult contemporary. Will Neil follow ’60s brethren Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana into the retirement village of easy listening?
“Here for You” isn’t a promising sign. The ballad may be pointed — this time seemingly at his son — but even Emmylou Harris cannot save the melody from being forgettable.
I hate to be morbid, but I cannot help thinking that if Young had died of his aneurysm, “Prairie Wind” would be a classic. But knowing that this recording will be just another in a long line of up-and-down albums in his later career, it’s hard to allow its theme to excuse painful lyrical and musical inconsistencies.
When taken on its own accord, as it after all should be, “Wind” amounts to a few strands of beauty hidden behind over-sentimentality.