Monday, August 09, 2004

Hey Mr. Clean, you're dirty now too

So I uh saw uh Greendale used, cheap at Harmony House and I uh bought it. I figured, "It's a CD with a bonus live DVD. That's practically half-price right there." Those who know my comments on it know that I was very wary indeed of it; Neil has obviously recovered from Kurt Cobain's and David Briggs's deaths and has, as is his wont, returned to comfortable hippy territory regarding the power of love. Ah well. Besides the sappy environmental/love/family themes, though, the names he's chosen for the characters -- did I mention it's a rock opera? -- are bizarrely allegorical (Sun Green and Earth Brown are the really egregious two).

Now that I've listened to it several times, I can say that a lot of my fears were justified. Most of it's very soft-headed; the paranoia isn't always convincing; and the lyrics get overheated reeeeeal easy. But I've also been impressed by the album, too: the moral universe Young has created really is deep and nuanced; when once in a while he actually manages to hit his target of scorn, it's powerful; and, finally, there is a novelistic attention to detail that's missing from the rest of the Young catalog. Also, the majority of the performances are musically very strong, even if most of the music is pretty simplistic. The defects will be glaringly apparent if you listen to the album, so I'll just stick to pointing out its strengths (I realize it's less fun that way).

The first strength is the lack of pretension. Neil is mostly into his little universe for its capacity to surprise him; he hasn't thought everything out, and so his emotional investment is in the characters rather than the moral of the whole rotten thing. This is a really good thing -- if it had to stand on plot alone, it would be dire (cf. Psychoderelict). Instead, Young created an imaginary place and let it grow in his mind, and pulled the threads of the story out of the milieu he envisioned. It has the capacity to be tiresome, certainly, but it's not so vauntingly insulting as the top-down concepts of the worst practitioners of the genre.

The second strength is how interesting most of the characters are. The major characters Young creates -- Jed, the militiaman; Grampa, Grandma, Earl, Sun (the daughter), Officer Carmichael and his wife -- all have severe deficiencies (well, except Sun) and virtues, and, other than Sun, they're not too stereotypical. The character of the Devil, who's only mentioned indirectly by the characters but who is fully fleshed out between the liners and the live acoustic performance, is one of the best: funny, clever, and inescapably creepy. And is it me, or is the friendly art gallery owner Lenore in league with him?!

The third major strength is that, even in the overlong or softheaded songs, Neil is in good (if not top) form as a songwriter and recording artist. "Sun Green", whose reduction to straightforward plot makes it seem incredibly banal (girl protests, is aired by media, FBI shoot her cat(!!!), runs away with sweet environmentalist type), in execution is rather masterful. Young has a special "megaphone" amplifier that he uses for Sun's protest vocals, and his delivery of the song's chorus through it (see title) is unforgettable. Even "Be the Rain" has enough songwriting chops to make one who rejects the hippie underpinnings of the song appreciate it as an ode to youthful passion -- the song construction is damn good.

So, yes, Greendale is a good album. It's not nearly as good as its proponents say, but it's an improvement from 2001's Are You Passionate?. (That isn't an insult coming from me; AYP is a damn decent little 6-track EP disguised as a crappy album). For the sheer proficiency of "recording design" (production, instrumentation, arrangement, song construction), it's worth at least a listen or two.