“As John Lennon would say, turn off your mind, relax and float downstream,” Neil Young told a few hundred fans gathered in the nature garden of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Country Friday night (May 6). He was borrowing from the Beatles to offer a cue about how to best experience the playback premiere of his forthcoming release, Earth, an album that’s as trippy as it is earthy.
That “downstream” reference wasn’t completely random. The album begins with the sound of a gentle stream, and as Earth unfolded over 98 minutes, the crowd heard 13 environmentally or politically themed live tracks taken from Young’s 2015 tour augmented with the sounds of the animal kingdom, occasional ambient traffic noise, and some blatant studio overdubs. It’s a sonic hybrid not quite like anything ever before heard in rock history.
While the museum crowd listened to the climactic 28-minute version of the Ragged Glory track “Love & Only Love” — now with wailing guitar feedback and whales — Young took time out in the museum’s offices to talk to Billboard about the impetus behind Earth (out June 24), one of his most unusual projects in a decades-long history of unusual projects.
There was no greater original intent than to release a document of his tour with current backing band Promise of the Real. “At first I knew only I had a lot of great shows and a lot of great performances of songs, several that were just one-timers or two-timers,” Young said. “I was listening to the whole tour, finding the best takes. The strongest ones turned out to be the ones that were about earth, that were about this story. They showed me that [concept]. There were some good takes of other songs too, but they didn’t fit with this. It seemed to be better to stay with something.”
But then it transmogrified from “live album” to… a living things album, which is where the animals came in. In the long history of live albums being secretly sweetened in the studio, this may mark the first time an artist has ever proudly advertised the overdubs as part of the conceptual appeal.
“A lot of people make live records and they fix ‘em and do all kinds of stuff, and that’s nice,” said Young. In this case, “there is no reason to assume that just because it was live that we had to pretend that it was [all] live… The way I look at it is, I perform best when I’m live. And I usually play live in the studio because of that. Here, it was like, hey, we’ve got a great groove here recorded [in concert], and now I’ll use it like it was a studio track, and I’ll use the audience like an effect. Sometimes you won’t know they’re there, and other times they’ll come back. Then I started thinking, when they do come back, maybe I’ll put a couple of animal sounds in there, because you can’t tell the difference between a coyote and somebody whooping in the audience. I mean, it’s really hard to tell. So I’ll just throw one in for a joke every once in a while or something like that, just to see what it sounds like.”
Soon it was no joking matter. “It sounded so great that I immediately wanted to leave the coliseum and go to where those animals came from,” Young said. “So we left the coliseum behind and just kind of floated down into the fields and brooks and streams and hung out with the animals in their own place. So that’s what the theme of the thing is, to remember they’re there. Even though we’re having wars, crickets are still singing.”
Earth seems to ingeniously unfold on multiple planes. There’s the amphitheater space, and the natural space outside its walls… but also a third realm, where a beautiful background chorale occasionally chimes in, like some kind of Greek chorus hovering over the proceedings. The fact that these extra vocals usually show up for the more political moments is an irony intended; you’ve never heard the words “Monsanto,” “Safeway,” and “Wal-Mart” sung more gorgeously.
“I wanted to use singers that were really great singers to augment the corporate harmony of some of the song — the brands and everything,” he said. “I knew I had to have a very commercial-sounding group to sound like that. So we found the best singers in L.A., and they formed their own group, and I worked with them and told them where to sing.” With that third layer, there’s portent amid the beauty — and, oddly, beauty amid the portent.
Although it’s an album full of social messages about the environment and greed, Young said — per his Lennon citation — that it’s perfectly okay to experience it as a purely aural excursion and not pause midway to dash off a letter to your congressperson. “A lot of people that listen to the record have said to me that it’s a meditative experience for them,” he said. “It relaxes them and they go away… Because it never stops, there’s no time to analyze what it is once you get locked into it.”
If he wants you to float downstream, that doesn’t mean he wants you to do it while streaming. Young has already pulled his music from most streaming services (other than Tidal, which has a $19.99/month high-fidelity streaming option), and Earth won’t even be available on iTunes, as he prefers the 98 minutes to be experienced, or at least purchased, as a whole. His well-known concerns about sound quality were secondary in that decision, although he’s happy to expound upon them.
“CD is as low as we can go” in quality, he said (with the 98-minute length dictating a double-disc release). “And I think it sounds great. Put it on and you’ll hear it, even though it’s nothing like Pono and it’s nothing like HD Tracks and it’s nothing like any of the other people that are purveyors of quality… It’s not on iTunes, because it didn’t fit on iTunes. This album is outside of the rules that have been set up by the corporate entities and computer companies that decide what music can [and] can’t be. So I prefer just to leave that off. You can’t hear it anyway. You try to listen to it that way, it’s nothing. It’s not what I would want to charge for. It’s something where I would say, hey, if you have a friend who has a Pono or even a CD of it, go ahead and make your MP3 off of it. I don’t want to have anything to do with that conversation, and I don’t want to have anything to do with anything that sounds like that, no matter what it is.”
Not to sound completely cavalier about limiting it in the commercial space, Young said, “I don’t care how many records I sell. I don’t care about any of that. I’d love to sell a lot of records to support the record company and everybody who’s working on it and have a lot of people hear the music. But not if it sounds like that.”
But back to more important matters. After all was said, overdubbed, and done on Earth, what turned out to be Young’s favorite animal sound?
Young chuckled, but seriously considered the question. And arrived at the creature he figures might be most likely to be an aurally attentive Pono fan. “You know, I like the elk,” Young said. “And I like the whales. But I love the crickets. They sing and they change their rhythm and they’ve got all these cadences. And the crow. The crow is a commentator. When something happens in the lyric, he reacts. He’s listening to the words.”