LPs from the Attic: Neil Young — Zuma
Neil Young — Zuma (Reprise, 1975)
Ole Neil’s Zuma is one hell of an under-appreciated record, if not just overlooked. If you want to play favorites regarding his output of the early-to-mid-seventies (with and without Crazy Horse), the “safe” picks are After the Goldrush or Harvest or, if you wanted to be a little hipper (in my humble estimation), Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. If you wanted to throw “obscure” or “contrarian” (read: unsafe) into the mix, you could opt for On the Beach or the harrowing introspection of Tonight’s the Night. And those are all compelling albums; the first three are bona fide great, while the last two are weighty and valuable in their own ways (i.e. explorations of grief, stardom, dependency, critical rejection). On the Beach could especially benefit from some critical re-evaluation.
Zuma, however, presents nothing short of a hungry rock band in all its ragged, reunited glory. Rust surely never sleeps when Crazy Horse gallops with this kind of rolling thunder; I wonder if Neil looks at a guitar effects stompbox like one big snooze button (let’s not speak of the kind of sleep he might be avoiding). As a guitar-centric blast of country-rock, it aligns more closely with Everybody Knows, making it a contender for my personal favorite.
While the album mostly focuses on lost love (“Don’t Cry No Tears” and “Pardon My Heart”) and romantic strife (“Stupid Girl”), the stand-out track is a thematic left turn: the epic “Cortez the Killer.” Fans of Neil’s guitar-neck-garroting, ultra-bent-note lead playing style will find plenty to enthuse about as the extensive, emotive solos just keep coming. The guitar work plus the tight-but-loose playing of the Horse equals no argument from me regarding the appearance of Spanish conquistadors on a “relationship” album.
I’m not sure why tracks from this record don’t get more airplay on what’s left of radio; in fact, I think I recall hearing “Cortez” only once or twice back in my classic-rock-radio immersion days. As bad-arsed a track as it is, it doesn’t make the rest of the record irrelevant by any stretch. Maybe the album’s lack of radio-friendly, folkier ballads (which Neil could crank out in his sleep during this career phase) makes it seem more obscure than it should. Zuma is largely up-tempo, lively stuff. With the exception of the acoustic-based “Pardon”, there’s more intensity than sad reflection on offer here. As much as you get a sense of love squandered or sought, the kiss-off of “Stupid Girl” seems to point to the defensive posture of many of the songs.
Buy this record. Throw it on the platter and jam “Danger Bird” at top volume, then repeat with “Cortez.” Let the deepr cuts sink in. Tell me it does or doesn’t fit the bill as one of the best Neil/Horse records ever recorded, one that plays to their melodic, pop-oriented instincts while retaining their keening rock edge.* Then, tell me why.
1) Don’t Cry No Tears**
2) Danger Bird**
3) Pardon My Heart
4) Lookin’ for a Love
5) Barstool Blues
1) Stupid Girl**
2) Drive Back
3) Cortez the Killer**
4) Through My Sails
* This LP sounds absolutely superb compared to the compact disc version–even the shabby copy used for this review. The rhythm section sounds especially lively in the lower frequencies, the solos soaring and gritty at the same time, while maintaining an overall sense of “space.” There were times listening to this record where I could almost feel Mr. Young’s spit.