Neil Young’s most go-to comparison is Bob Dylan, but the best comparison point for Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere isn’t Dylan (who has never rocked this hard, and was taking it easy that year), it’s Fleetwood Mac’s Then Play On, released that same year. I still stand by the fact that that album is overrated save “Oh Well” (you can read my review for its most recent and as-of-now most definitive reissue here) but this is what George Starostin had to say about it:
The thing to note about [Then Play On] is how goddamn DARK it all sounds. Not ‘spooky’, actually; it’s a strange, dusky kind of atmosphere, created by all the silent and slow numbers, with lots of echoes and sound depth until it begins to feel you’re wandering through dark empty halls trying to find an exit and finding none – apparently, something of the kind was truly torturing Peter at the time […] If anything, this dark, introspective atmosphere is the coherent theme for all of this album […] and for the atmosphere I’m even ready to forgive any individual flaws. Hell, in this context even the most boring Kirwan noodlings suddenly make perfect sense: they all picture a very paranoid, yet loving and sentimental mind. This atmosphere is indeed something unique and unprecedented: how many albums do you know that manage to sound dark and disturbing, but not dangerous at all?
(Just replace Peter with Neil Young, and “Kirwan noodlings” with “extended guitar solos.”)
Yeah, everyone’s favorite pieces are “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” probably because all of them remind them of their favorite 80s and 90s indie/alternate rock records, just decades ahead of schedule. And to be sure, those three songs are great: the immortal riff/handclaps that opens the album; the sugar rush each time Neil Young sings “…my cinnamon girl”; the dialogue between the two guitarists in “Down by the River” starting at the 1:55 mark; how economic Young’s first guitar solo in “Cowgirl in the Sand” is, like he asked himself ‘how melodic and badass can I be with as little notes as possible?” before proceeding to hammer one note for as long as possible; the skyward direction and harmonies of the last line of each verse; quoting Greil Marcus’ “Good Times,” as recommended by Robert Christgau: “His singing is fine, effective, but it is just nothing compared to the guitar he plays at the same time. It is as if his voice is merely a melodic device meant to intensify his guitar.” And Marcus also compares the only intro (I think they start with the same chord; too lazy to check), silence and new start of “Cowgirl” to “Paint It Black”, and I don’t think the comparisons end there: the one-measure drum break in both songs signal something huge is on the way.
But this album wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for the other pieces (except “The Losing End (When You’re On)”, where Young’s over-countrified singing is mildly amusing on a song that is otherwise anything but). ”Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)” gets a lot of flak because nothing happens; that it’s just boy-girl harmonies over an acoustic guitar going through some simple chords for 6 minutes. But the melody is direct, and like the best songs on the Microphones’ Lost Wisdom, the loneliness communicated in that melody and the way it’s sung (that either vocalist’s vibrato could snap at any point in time; like a Young guitar solo) is somehow strengthened despite the fact that there are two people singing. It’s better than the entirety of Lost Wisdom, anyway. Honestly, “Running Dry (Requiem For the Rockets)” – slightly shorter – feels like it goes on for longer than “Round & Round,” but the interplay between Bobby Notkoff’s screeching violin and the mysterious guitar chords adds to the album’s desolate atmosphere. I don’t think these two songs are as good as the three songs I just talked about. I just think an album where it was those three songs and others just like them would have created a stifling record; maybe Reactor would have been better with a few soft songs juxtaposing the loud ones, right?
Then there’s the title track, which I do think is as good as those three songs. Better, actually. It gets my vote for Canada’s unofficial national anthem. It doesn’t rock as hard as “Cinnamon Girl” (few things do), but the guitar is sharp and the bass is loud, and both are dirty, which makes the sunny, indelible “la-la-la” hook all the more sunny and indelible (I thought they were the goofiest thing ever when I first heard them. I still think they’re goofy now, but they’re goofy for a reason). I get the feeling, seeing as how he was in California when he wrote this, that it’s not about Canada at all. That it’s about life, and thinking that makes me sadder, because if this were about Canada, at least I can think about leaving.
His best. I know I said that about Rust Never Sleeps less than a week ago – I’ll go edit that now.