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Mining for Silver and Gold 

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Neil Young
Silver and Gold
Reprise

The opening strains of Neil Young's new solo album are like a promise kept, his crisp acoustic guitar leads brushed up alongside his bleating harmonica and the atmospheric backing of Ben Keith's steel guitar. These days, Young draws more attention for his layered grunge odes, but his acoustic amblings are as resonant as ever, and Silver and Gold reminds listeners that there is no one we'd rather have singing around our campfire.

Anchored by the first cut, "Good to See You," the early songs build so much momentum that we're carried through the rest of the album on good faith. The song was engendered in the back of Young's bus with nothing more than the line encapsulated in the title, but that's enough to establish the album's good-time, relaxed, and welcoming mood: "I'm the suitcase in your hallway/I'm the footsteps on your floor," Young sings, and we feel like a good old friend has come home again.

"It's got my father in it," Young sings in "Daddy Went Walkin'," a gently nostalgic song that mixes commonplace images of getting wood with the barnyard cat and pushing tall weeds right out of his way with the aching feeling of separation and the youthful optimism of reunion and reconciliation. It's one of the most subtle songs you'll ever hear about the breakup of a family, communicating by tone and a vocabulary of imagery that belie the surface lyrics, assuring lyrics: "Daddy went ridin' in his ole car/Took the dog with 'im 'cause it ain't that far."

"Buffalo Springfield Again" is a perfect capsule of the album, capturing the feel and vibe of another time without ever getting around to a substantial idea. The song spreads an infectious joy that sets off a series of time-release capsules in our imagination, evoking a fond legacy we can entertain as long as pedantic lyrics are allowed to slip past.

Under close scrutiny, the album starts to wane before it's half over. When the musical ideas dry up, there's not enough lyrical strength to sustain anything other than pleasantly ambient background tracks. Young walks a fine line with "The Great Divide" and "Horseshoe Man," tastefully and barely resisting the urge to overproduce them, letting a sparely used piano or Keith's meandering steel licks offset an otherwise solid wall of smarm.

"Red Sun" offers a mixture of a sedate love song with a tincture of spirituality and benefits from backup vocals by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. The song's honesty cuts through in Young's voice with a quality missing in the more contrived lyrics of "Distant Camera," which could just as well be titled "Song of Love #6." The last couple of cuts return with full force to the kind of vibrant imagery that has fueled Young's best lyrics, letting "Razor Love" dwell in lyrics about greeting a lover's open arms and taking her down the track with a love that cuts clear through. "Without Rings" sings of "Rows of poppy fields/Harmony entwined/Changing gears that grind pictures in my mind," capturing the spare "back of the bus" vision that inspired the album.

Silver and Gold is middle-of-the-road terrain for Young, a path he avoids so vehemently that his occasional ventures there feel like fringe work. There are musical echoes recalling the Harvest days of the early '70s with Keith helping Young define his acoustic sound with the Stray Gators, this time drawing on a rhythm section that features Duck Dunn and Jim Keltner on bass and drums. Young's return to the middle-of-the-road finds "flowers pushin' through the dotted line," ensuring that what was once a mainstream has evolved into an intriguing tributary, abandoned to industrial rerouting.

  • The opening strains of Neil Young's new solo album are like a promise kept.

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