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Mirror Ball shows Young still has a few years left

Mirror Ball

Neil Young.

Reprise Records.

By Scott Deskin

It's hard for me to admit this now, but I was a Pearl Jam fan before I really even knew who Neil Young was. A couple years have passed, and I've really enjoyed Young's older work (especially Rust Never Sleeps, from 1979) while cautiously viewing the groundswell of Pearl Jam fans who have spurred the Seattle band to multi-platinum glory. And though it's unfair to condemn a mainstream (not alternative) band for its popularity, it's hard for me to live my life by the sociopolitical views of a group of musicians - make that of one lead vocalist, Eddie Vedder. I appreciate the music, though, and I think that Vitalogy has more to say than the overrated Vs.

But this is Neil Young's story. He reemerged from near-oblivion at the end of the 80s with the album Freedom and the single "Rockin' in the Free World," and he's been mounting a commercial and artistic renaissance ever since. Young's pattern of alternating a hard, gritty rock album with his backing band Crazy Horse to a selection of folkish/acoustic songs hasn't died completely, but he seems to be going after the twentysomething set now, in large part due to his newfound kinship with Pearl Jam.

If Harvest Moon was a comforting offering to his old fans who remember his mellow days from Harvest (1972), Young's latest album, Mirror Ball, should remind us again what a musical chameleon Young really is. In addition, Crazy Horse is on hiatus in this album, in favor of the harder-rocking and less improvisationally-minded Pearl Jam.

To start the album, "Song X" is like a pirates' drunken nihilistic sing-a-long, with the chorus, "Hey ho, away we go/ We're on the road to never." "Act of Love" wraps up its sentiments with the repetitive phrase "slowly pounding," providing the lyrical motif that is extended to war ("the holy war") and abusive relationships. "I'm the Ocean" sounds, from the outset, more like a Pearl Jam record, and it's a rather long reflection on Young's longevity: "People my age/ They don't do the things I do/ They go somewhere/ While I run away with you." Young's propensity to try new things has dated back to 1972, when after the chart-topping success of "Heart of Gold," he got bored with the middle of the road and, in his own words, "headed for the ditch." "Big Green Country" describes a drifter's journey out of unfriendly territory to a place where a woman is waiting and "praying to her God" and where "the cancer cowboy rides."

"Downtown," with its crunching central guitar riff, is Mirror Ball's thematic center. The song opens with a false start, like many of the other pseudo-off-the-cuff jams on the album. "Downtown" is also a chance for Neil to relax a little, lyrically and melodically, and just get in the groove with the rest of the band. The song hearkens back to "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" from Young's 1975 album Tonight's the Night, which itself was a collaboration with and a tribute to deceased Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. "Downtown" mentions that "Jimi's playing in the back room/ Led Zeppelin's on stage," but also notes that a mirror ball twirling in the center of the room forms a vortex that sucks in all passers-by. Clearly, "Downtown" could be a metaphor for hell, not just a good time.

"Peace and Love" is another good song, and special too, in that it features lyrics by Pearl Jam frontman Vedder, and gives a new spin to those old hippie ideals. And "Throw Your Hatred Down" is another fine rocker, a somewhat muted analog to Young's "Rockin' in the Free World," where "hatred" and "weapons" are the forces that separate "peasants and presidents." The second half of the album is bracketed by two brief organ interludes, "What Happened Yesterday" and "Fallen Angel," that recall Young's 1970 release After the Gold Rush.

Mirror Ball is very good, and it brims over with ideas and lyrics that suggest that Neil Young may carve out a new niche for himself in the youth market - not the Grateful Dead's way, but his way. It may lack the vision or urgency of his other, more important albums, but it confirms his relevance to today's airwaves: This dinosaur has got a few years left in him yet.