Neil Young - Hawks & Doves (1980)
The beginning of the end or the beginning's very last gasps before spiraling off into the sad waters of unstable mediocrity once and for all? Neither description is wholly accurate, although I'm more likely to side with the former. That is, assuming that "the end" refers to the idea that everything Neil produced during his run from the beginning of his solo career through the end of the '70s possesses a certain intangible quality that just makes even the most seemingly average albums and songs endlessly listenable, all part of the same winning streak even when varying in quality. And said "quality" tends to shift all over the place, with certain obvious classics losing their impact over time while those of less heralded ones are dramatically enhanced with repeated listens and an increasingly deeper understanding of not just Neil's music but also life itself.
Hawks & Doves is not commonly thought of as being part of that nearly unparalleled run of consistency. I pity the reputation of any recording that has to follow Rust Never Sleeps, a Long Player whose sheer perfection has managed to baffle me for over two thirds of my life, but this one did. This slapped together collection of nine songs, four of which are leftovers, the other five of which probably took slightly more than the length of the LP to write, learn, and perform. All flying by in 29 minutes, with no recognizable Neil classics or anything resembling a hit. Not being deemed worthy of a CD release until 2003. A Neil Young album from the '80s (more on that later.)
I hadn't pulled it out in a few years, back when I decided that one or two listens of this decidedly less than great album were just enough. As has been the case with so many of my favorite Neil Young records, dismissal eventually morphed into a surprising and welcome freshness in my overall perception of the music, like discovering a whole new album. This is mostly significant for the acoustic songs contained on side one... the "Doves" side. Sure, there's only four. Nobody ever talks about them. Two of the songs are under two minutes long with only one of the remaining numbers being a true epic. Not one of these songs is "Ambulance Blues." Or "Will To Love," for that matter. But if you have any taste whatsoever, seeing the words "Neil Young," "acoustic," and "recorded 1974-1977" in one sentence should quite literally excite the shit out of you.
What I'm trying to say is that over here in my little corner of the universe, there's shit everywhere. And every time I play this record, there's more shit. Because not only does the era that these songs were recorded in suggest that they might just be excellent, but the songs themselves... well, they are pretty damn good. They possess that undefinable magic of classic Neil and fall under the same "space folk" umbrella beneath which you might find the aforementioned "Will To Love," side two of On The Beach, even some of the more soaring moments on Zuma like "Cortez The Killer" and "Danger Bird" that aren't really "folk" at all but just plain awesome. "Pardon My Heart," too. At nearly eight minutes and featuring boss as all hell Levon Helm drumwork, "The Old Homestead" is almost an unfuckwitable classic like those songs but... well, you get the sense that Neil is baked out of his gourd and just kind of spewing gibberish. Which is awesome, though. There's even a theremin in the background! "Why do you ride that crazy horse?" David Crosby and the other CSN squares probably asked that question a few times. It's not a lyrical "every line fucking rules even if you don't know what he's talking about" masterpiece like "Thrasher" or "Ambulance Blues." The thing just kind of plods along while Neil tells a weirdass story that might go somewhere but might not. There's a "naked rider" like in El Topo so you can pretend that Neil is as groovy as those stoners you know that like to masturbate each other while watching said film. All in all, an excellent woozy abyss of a song that you can stare into for many minutes.
It's all about the opener, though. "Little Wing" is just over two minutes long and not the Jimi Hendrix song of the same name. Two beautiful chords, harmonica, gorgeous singing and lyrics. It doesn't seem all that developed, but does it really need to be? The fact that he could just crap out a song like this and throw it onto an album along with a few other unreleased oldies but goodies because nobody is gonna be happy to find out that the new Neil Young album is 12 minutes long... pretty incredible. Here's hoping that the next volume of Archives has a few more songs like that waiting to be discovered. "Lost In Space" and "Captain Kennedy" are good, too. The minor key melody of the latter has the same sort of strangely haunting traditionalism that you might find in a select few of Mark Kozelek's April jams, namely "Unlit Hallway," "Heron Blue," and the verses of "Tonight The Sky." What's the deal with THAT? And "Lost In Space" is pleasant, slightly transcendent, and just plain weird at the same time, what with the break where Neil fucks with the pitch of the backing vocals so that it sounds like he's leading a singalong with a group of demonic schoolchildren. Again, the guy was probably baked as hell. Somebody should have asked him to guest on Paul McCartney & Wings' Wild Life LP.
But then you have side two. The "Hawks." The first sign that the untouchable Neil of the 1970s was getting ready to have a go at music styles that he should have just been staying away from. See, Neil Young writes brilliant melodies. When he starts fucking around with bluesy R&B, rockabilly, or straight country, genres that are defined by their reliance on the same old boring chord sequences (which can be properly navigated by masters of those forms, natch), his talent for melody is stifled considerably. Trans is a fantastic record because even through all the robot fetishizing, you still had "Transformer Man." You still had "Computer Age" and "Like An Inca," excellent songs with killer guitar lines and lovely vocal melodies. Life is a fantastic and still underappreciated album because aside from a couple generic rockers, most of the songs do have excellent melodies that you should love. Landing On Water is somewhat tolerable because even though he's trying to write a Phil Collins era Genesis album instead of a Neil Young album, he can't leave melody behind.
That's why the '80s sucked for Neil and yet it's also why the suckiness of that period continues to be grossly overstated. Side two of Hawks & Doves contains five really, really, really dumb sounding patriotic anthems. Straightforward country, folks. Some of the ugliest hoedown racket Neil has ever put his name on. And that's saying quite a bit. The guy's voice on these songs makes "Yonder Stands The Sinner" sound like Brian FUCKING Wilson. Ben Keith should have slapped him. The sequencing is particularly hilarious. Surely he could have looked at these songs and said, "Hmm, 'Coastline' and 'Stayin' Power' have the same feel and basic tempo. Maybe I should stick 'Union Man' or 'Comin' Apart At Every Nail' in between them, two songs that are pretty much rewrites of one another and sound like one song when you stick them together. And then there's the title track, which also sounds like a continuation of 'Union Man' and 'Comin' Apart At Every Nail,' so why the hell would I put it right after those two songs?" But no. Neil Young did not say any of that. See, Neil Young is a trailblazing DJ genius who wants for his traxx to have only the sickest flow imaginable so you can dance to one nonstop groove for seven whole minutes at a time.
But the thing is... it's really not that bad. The shittiest shit he'd managed to release up until that point? Maybe. But it goes by pretty fast, you get some cute backing vocals, a few boneheadedly catchy moments, and a surprisingly okay song in "Hawks & Doves," with its perfectly enjoyable melody, awful yet catchy vocal hook ("U-S-AAAAAAAAAA"), and some signature throat slittin' lead guitar (finally!) And when all is said and done, do you really need much more than that? Well, yes. Great fucking album, though, somehow.
Rating: 9.0/10... I think Xgau liked it, too. For some reason whenever I read that guy's name I picture Richard Meltzer instead.
Download Link: "Little Wing"