Few singers play vulnerability better than Neil Young. It’s the most affecting trait of this collection of a dozen songs, presented in two separate versions: one set gussied up in formal wear, and the other kicking back in shorts and T-shirts on the back porch. Not that the section recorded with a 92-piece orchestra choir and a bluesy big band doesn’t have its charms, but the solo recordings have an intimacy and power that play to Young’s well-known strengths as a songwriter, guitarist and world-weary vocalist.
Young, 68, recorded the tunes, mostly on piano, for the solo section. These are not demos: The recordings are polished and his vocals finessed with modulation to smartly complement the accompaniment. The songs reveal the undiminished spark in Young’s songwriting. His subjects — new love, the environment and Chicago blues (with plenty of references to cars) — fit the news of his recent life activities (divorce, new romance, alternative fuel/anti-fracking activism). “I’m Glad I Found You” has all the hallmarks of a classic wedding tune. The stripped-down album is trademark Young in many ways, gracefully fitting within a framework that recalls his quieter moments of After the Gold Rush, Tonight’s the Night and the underappreciated Sleeps With Angels.
Heavyweight recording engineer Al Schmitt and arranger-orchestrators Michael Bearden and Chris Walden inflated these songs to an extreme degree for the beefier version — Young’s previous orchestral work, on 1972’s Harvest and big-band exercise This Note’s For You, are child’s play compared with Storytone. But tracks like “Glimmer,” a fine love song, is a perfect example of how ill-fitting this approach can be: Young’s scratchy vocal fails to complement its exquisitely cinematic orchestration until the final two lines show a fleshed-out poignancy. It’s the same, too, with his blues performances, where all the power is in the back — a vibrant horn section echoes Count Basie‘s Atomic Band — but the frontman is unable to pull his weight. His talk-singing is far more convincing when the accompaniment is a sole electric guitar.
At times, though, Young and his many collaborators do gel. “Tumbleweed,” with melodic hooks that recall Buddy Holly‘s classic “Every Day,” is sweet and inviting. “When I Watch You Sleeping” and “All Those Dreams” are a sublime marriage of his gentle 1990s acoustic work and the orchestral accompaniments of ’60s country-pop.
This article will appear in the Nov. 15 issue of Billboard.