Neil Young has always been less than demure about his fascination for the esoteric aspect of his art: an inextinguishable tendency for exuberant nonconformity that has lent itself to albums of both breathtaking beauty and antagonistic experimentation, bordering on self-indulgence. Young's newest album, Greendale, and its accompanying quasi-theatrical stage show, are no exception.
Greendale -- a loosely woven concept album about a fictional family living in a fictional place -- is unapologetic in the audacity and breadth of its scope. But beneath the convoluted storyline of the album and Young's frequent lyrical transgressions ("Meanwhile across the ocean / Living in the Internet / Is the cause of an explosion") there are plenty of reminders that Young, and his backing band, Crazy Horse, are still on top of their game. Whether it's the raunchy, mid-tempo garage rock of "Double E," or the plaintive acoustic guitar on "Bandit," the moments of brilliance still outnumber the incidents of reckless abandon.
But what really sets Greendale apart from most other mainstream rock albums released in the past decade is the way in which Young's material is translated on stage from album to musical theater. Complete with sets, props and nearly three dozen actors and dancers who lip-sync Young's lyrics, Greendale, the pop-musical, has more in common with a rustic, community-theater production of Hair than the sort of elaborate, big-budget stage show one might expect from an artist of Young's stature.
For those who want to prepare themselves for this unconventional arena rock event, the album's liner notes contain a multi-paged, expository libretto that tells the story of the Green family's various adventures. On top of that, Young provides concertgoers with an old-fashioned theater handbill meant to elucidate the theatrical spectacle. Fans wanting to hear "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World," "Heart of Gold" and Young's other hits will have to sit through a brief intermission, which will follow the complete rendition of the Greendale album, complete with Young's inter-song narration.
In anybody but Neil Young's hands, the whole thing would reek of conceptual contrivance, but the sheer force of his iconic personality and his propensity toward grand experimentation make the otherwise gimmicky stage show seem inevitable.
"I won't retire, but I might retread," sings Neil Young on "Falling From Above," the first track on Greendale. As fans know, this is certainly not the first time Young has "retreaded" in order to push the boundaries of rock. After leaving the influential country-rock group Buffalo Springfield in 1968 to pursue a solo career, Young's 1979 release, Rust Never Sleeps, made forays into the realm of conceptual art, and on the progressive 1983 album Trans, he made extensive use of electronics in synthesizing his voice with a vocoder. But what distinguishes Greendale from those projects, and for that matter, everything else Young has done, is the album's refusal to take itself seriously.
"Well, Greendale is a nice town, but it has its quirks," writes Young in the album's libretto, "I mean, I made it up and I don't know what the hell is goin' on."
Despite the curiosity inherent in Young's methods, his storytelling on the album avoids both condescension and self-deprecation, striking an amiable balance that leaves the listener with the feeling that he had been conversing with a close friend. And if nothing else, Greendale proves that the 58-year-old Young is still capable of rocking in the free world.
-- Joe Kuzma
Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Colorado Springs World Arena 3185 Venetucci Blvd.
Sunday, Feb. 29 at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $86.50, $61 or $41 Call 477-2121 or 866/464-2626 www.ticketswest.com