1986’s Landing on Water is nobody’s favorite Neil Young album. Of course, most of us know how Neil flailed around (or by all appearances he did, anyway) in the 80’s, trying on musical genres like he was trying to find the perfect tux to wear to prom or something, royally pissing off and even alienating the ardent fanbase he had built with his earthy, deeply felt, and mostly introspective and indisputably classic 70’s work. I mean, sure, he had always presented a restless intellect and mercurial nature, but he seemed to go off the deep end after signing with Geffen Records after the sludgy Crazy Horse-backed stomper Re-Ac-Tor failed to make much of an impression on anyone in 1981. In fact, that’s another worthy subject for one of these, but later for that. Anyway, the first shot of insanity (to staunch Neil fans, anyway) was 1982’s proto-techno Trans, born from Neil’s fascination with using early 80’s tech to communicate with his autistic son. 30 years later, it’s actually quite listenable, hindsight has been kind to it. Not content to expand on that and maybe taken a little aback to the reaction, Our Man Neil abruptly decided to do rockabilly to middling effect (Everybody’s Rockin’), and a half-assed, mock-serious attempt at doing an Nashville Country & Western album that was watered down even further by nervous record label suits (Old Ways). Especially galling was the knowledge that the fondly-remembered Harvest album was also recorded in Nashville, and fans really had their hopes up for it. While these records do have their admirers (I can take or leave the former, but I can’t stand the latter), by now all but the hard core were fed up with all the genre-hopping, including record label head David Geffen himself, who dispatched a battalion of lawyers to sue Mr. Shakey for making albums that were “non-commercial and musically uncharacteristic”. This was settled out of court prior to the recording of Landing, and Geffen himself eventually apologized, but many folks kinda saw his point.
According to Wiki, many of Landing’s songs were originally slated for recording with Crazy Horse in 1984, but apparently the results were unsatisfactory and were shelved. In ‘86, Neil recruited longtime LA session guy Danny “Kootch” Kortchmar (James Taylor, Nilsson, Warren Zevon, Crosby & Nash, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt and many more) as well as jazz drummer Steve Jordan (who also did a multitude of sessions for a multitude of people, as well as eventually backing Keith Richards’ solo work) and on a few cuts, the San Francisco Boys’ Chorus, and decided to dust a few of the Horse tunes off. No bass player was listed, so I suppose it was done on keys by Kortchmar or Neil. The album’s sound was harder and more rock-edged than anything he’d done since the aforementioned Re-Ac-Tor, but many were once again taken aback by the preponderance of electronic instruments used- the only organic sounds that emanated from this album was the Boys’ Chorus. All done up with a digital-to-a-fault 1980’s production sound, the obvious comparisons were to Trans; but this album has more of an edge and attitude to my ears, and while many listeners were nonplussed yet again, I’ve come to love this album, and place it higher than almost any of his 80’s efforts, possibly excepting Trans and the release that got him back in people’s good graces, 1989’s Freedom.
I must, at this point, make special mention of Jordan’s electronic drum sound he uses in this album (and in some of the subsequent work I’ve heard him on as well). It sounds flat and dead and loud, like he’s smacking a plastic barrel with a hollow wooden bat or something, and I simply love it.
So. This isn’t long enough, so what say we do a track-by-track, shall we? You can listen along using the full-album video below!
Weight of the World – The lead track clues you in right off the bat to what you’ll be hearing on this entire album; a rolling tumbling stop-start beat, punctuated with synthesizer notes, and Neil’s falsetto processed voice singing about all the pressures he’s faced and how he’s treated other people; real 70’s style introspection, all gussied up in “modern” 80’s clothes. No guitar solo, except for a few pinched notes on the fadeout. This one had a really odd, Young-filmed, and almost nightmarish to watch video.
Bad News Beat finds Young using newspaper and TV News metaphors to tell us that his baby doesn’t love him, more or less. It’s not the strongest cut on the album, it rolls and tumbles to no real good effect but doesn’t really last too long so it gets a pass. It provides a little break before segueing into the next song…
Touch the Night, which was the first track I heard from this record when MTV aired the video that featured Neil dressed as yet another TV News reporter (see previous song), at the chaotic scene of an accident, red-robed chorus in tow. Rather striking image, and the video is full of sly humor. The straight-ahead driving guitar-rock of the accompaniment compliments the reflective nature of the lyrics, as Neil meditates on the transience of life or something like that. The SFBC is on hand again here to provide angelic textures to the choruses, and ooh-ah to great effect as the band crashes and bashes to the end of the song. Again, Jordan really brings the thunder.
Next up, we get the funky drum & synth (no bass can I discern, if it’s there, its very low in the mix) shuffle of People on the Street, which is a disconcertingly light-in-tone treatment of a serious problem (as much in 1986 as it is now), homelessness. Still, I can’t help but get a kick out of the nice shooby-doo-wah style vocals on the middle section. You stay busy tapping your toe, even as you digest lyrics such as:
There’s a muffled scream from the alley scene
From the alley scene comes a muffled scream
And the siren wails while the system fails
In the steaming heat people walk in the street
People can’t run and hide
If you want to feel good then you gotta feel good inside.
As study in contradictions, Neil in the 80’s. The bizarre video he made for this song doesn’t improve things one bit, even doubling up on the incongruity via some shameless mugging by the performers.
On Hard Luck Stories, Neil basically echoes George Harrison in 1964 via “Don’t Bother Me”, requesting that we don’t tell him our hard luck stories, and in exchange he won’t tell us his. Simple enough, and this song boogies along amiably with a nice little guitar lick accent or two as we go back to the lyrics after the solo break as well as in the fadeout.
I Got a Problem is another hard rocking cut with a great riff at its base and a jagged, staccato beat. Neil has a problem. He can’t explain it and doesn’t want talk about it either. Great music for dancing around spastically, as some of us did back then. Jordan shines in the breaks after Neil sings “Every time we talk about it/I break out in a cold cold sweat”.
Pressure (not to be confused with the Billy Joel hit from ’82) starts out with a nice Beatlish riff (played by Danny Kootch, I bet), and chugs along with a Devo-like approach (he had made a great public show of embracing the pioneering synth-poppers in previous years, wonder if this was left over from some abandoned collaboration?), especially on the breaks in which the backing singers sing
Don’t feel, don’t feel
Feel pressure from me
Don’t feel, don’t feel
No pressure from me
Don’t feel, don’t feel
Feel pressure from me.
Immediately followed by synth-processed vocals which sound like screams. Max Headroom gets a sly namecheck at one point, remember him? Young made a video for this one too, and it’s just as bizarre as the others.
The album closes with Drifter, which kinda, well, drifts- lumbering along, Frankenstein-like, until the end. The synth-drum-guitar mix is the same as on most of the other tracks. It’s another kind of mission statement from Mr. Young, in which he seems to express confusion as to why people react so aversely to his wayward nature and seeks to defend himself. To wit:
What about you, did I ever take a thing from you?
What about me, how do I know that your love is true?
What about you, how can I count on you to count on me?
Neil’s feelings aside, I wish there had been a stronger way to close this record…not that it would have mattered anyway. This album wasn’t successful at all sales-wise, reflecting how many had given up on the Neil that gave us After the Gold Rush or Zuma or even Rust Never Sleeps ever coming back. However, for all practical purposes, this album brought a close to the restless experimentation; he reunited with Crazy Horse on the 1987 followup Life, and its more conventional rock gave the faithful hope, and soon he won a lot of lost sheep back to the fold with 1989’s Freedom, which paved the way for his well-received 00’s and 10’s albums.
But I never forgot this record, even though it, too, took me aback when I bought it in ’86 after liking “Touch the Night”. Obviously, I eventually warmed to it, though it took a little while, and I like it as much as any record he put out post-Rust Never Sleeps.
When I was taking graphic design classes in the late 90’s, I had the opportunity to meet the artist who did the package design, Laura LiPuma. She didn’t have a lot to say about this job, (mostly she talked about doing Prince’s LoveSexy as well as Sign ‘O’ the Times) but she remembered that it was an enjoyable assignment and Neil was supportive of what she did.
Next up, the Toxic Twins burn out.