Neil Young's 'Time Fades Away' (1973)

Rediscovering lost music via the vinyl bins at secondhand stores

Album: Time Fades Away

Artist: Neil Young

Music critics use many words to describe Neil Young, including "eclectic," "enigmatic," and "eccentric." Last year after paying $75 to see Neil Young from the worst seats in the house at the Knoxville Civic Coliseum, the word that popped into my head was "rich." But it's hard to begrudge the guy his fortune. Young has been a rock star for 50 years, and the quality of his work consistently has been very high, compared even to that of other lasting performers such as Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.

Every time one is tempted to dismiss Neil Young as irrelevant, he roars back with a Harvest Moon or a Prairie Wind. Moreover, he has proven over the years to be a singularly decent man. He's raised money for AIDS research, disabled children, and desperate farmers. And every few years he demonstrates his abiding loyalty to his friends by working with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. That fissile ensemble has been irrelevant for decades, but periodically Neil Young drags one or more of the fellas into the studio and teases some decent work out of them.

Young's recent visit here reminded me that many years ago I found a copy of Time Fades Away at a local thrift store. I've forgotten which store and I've forgotten how much I paid. But I've never forgotten the album, and I revisited it last week when I learned from popular culture scholar Dr. Joseph Ellis at Wingate University that it is one of only two albums Neil Young has not released on CD.

Listening to the album helps explain the elision. The sound is terrible. If auto-tune and pitch correction software have opposites, this live album utilized them. Then there's the palpable misery. The album's front cover is grey and green and shows a horde of fans crowding a grim-looking stage with a lone rose resting on it. The rear cover shows a Hertz rent-a-truck speeding by on what appears to be a nondescript frontage road in some Midwestern hellhole. For an obvious contrast, check out the cover of Cheap Trick's Live at Budokan.

The music is similarly lugubrious. Young's near falsetto sounds close to cracking on several occasions, at least once on every song here. "Journey Through the Past" and "Love in Mind" feature just Young and his piano, and at several points the elementary approach and simple lyrics belie the desperation. Young offers a not-at-all-original sentiment when he sings, "Jesus where is nature gone?" on the latter track, but his beleaguered rendering gives it surprising impact. Similarly, when he sings on "LA," "uptight, city in the smog, city in the smog, don't you wish that you could be here too?", I was tempted to roll my eyes at the hackneyed observation that yes, Los Angeles has poor air quality. But his heartfelt puzzlement at how we could let this happen and how anyone (including him) could spend a great deal of time in L.A. resonates because Young gives the proceedings such emotional heft. There are rockers here, including the extended and erratic and febrile "Last Dance," which finishes up the album. It packs an emotional wallop as it fades away. I won't listen to this album again any time soon. But I'll keep it in reserve; sometimes, just to feel intensely alive, I have the impulse to stare directly at the sun. Next time this happens, I'll throw this record on instead.