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Neil Young reassesses a career built on confounding expectations

Two issues had weighed heavily on the veteran singer-songwriter Neil Young during the making of his 31st album, "Prairie Wind", which was released in July 2005.

Standing onstage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, dressed dapperly in a pale-gray suit and white gaucho hat, Neil Young sounded positively reverential as he surveyed the cathedral room that for years served as the setting for the Grand Ole Opry.

“I love this place,” he said, addressing an audience gathered for the second of two invitation-only performances being taped for a forthcoming DVD. “It’s like a church. It is a church.”

That scene took place in the fall of 2005, a time during which Young had good reason to be contemplating matters of religion, faith and mortality.

Two issues had weighed heavily on the veteran singer-songwriter during the making of his 31st album, Prairie Wind, which was released that July. Specifically, the terminal illness of his father (the esteemed writer Scott Young, who died that June), and his own recent surgery to repair a life-threatening brain aneurysm had compelled Young to craft an acoustic-based song cycle in the tradition of his country-rock classics Harvest, Comes a Time and Harvest Moon.

Rife with ruminations about family, friendships and God, Prairie Wind had been recorded in Nashville in a whirlwind span of just two weeks.

“I had a lot on my mind, and I just came to Nashville and started writing,” Young said. “The songs appear on the album in the order that I wrote them. I had only one song when we went into the studio. We recorded that, and then there was the next day. I had the melody for the next song, but no words, so I went back to the hotel and wrote the lyrics, and we recorded the second song the following day. Things just kept going like that. After we did the third song, I had to go to New York and meet with the doctors, to set the date for the [surgical] procedure and so forth. But then I went back to Nashville right away, and we kept on recording.”

Religion was an issue he addressed head on.

“The album just came out [that] way,” Young continued. “I think family is very important, and faith, and the environment, and separation of church and state, and the right to believe in and have your own relationship with God. There’s very little aggression on this record. Whereas with the rock ‘n’ roll I play — or whatever you want to call the kind of music I do with my electric guitar — there’s a lot of aggression in that.”

Flash forward two years, and Young is back at it, coming out of the woodwork with Chrome Dreams II, supposedly a sequel to one of the legendary lost albums of rock, Chrome Dreams.

This interview from 2005 shows that the more things change for Young, the more they remain the same.

Two sides of the same coin

That dichotomy — the shifting between soft, pastoral folk-rock and incendiary, distortion-laden rock ‘n’ roll — has been a trademark of Young’s solo career from the start.

Sometimes that dual nature came packaged within a single album — 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps being the most obvious example — but, more often, each album has exclusively embraced one style or the other. Young’s first solo album -— the self-titled Neil Young — was a tentative, over-polished work that broke little new ground and barely differed from his work in Buffalo Springfield. But for his second album, 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Young enlisted members of a young band called The Rockets to help beef up his sound.