Every Neil Young album unleashed upon the world has borne the unmistakable imprint of his unwavering artistic vision. In an era preceding the rise of punk as a cultural phenomenon, Young embodied the rebellious spirit within the confines of the studio, vehemently resisting contemporary trends. He even retaliated against his record company by crafting albums destined for commercial obscurity. Amidst the brilliance scattered across his discography, Young’s approach wasn’t always met with unanimous enthusiasm from fellow musicians.
Post-Buffalo Springfield emancipation, Young’s initial solo ventures echoed a mellow interpretation of his signature sounds, delving into folk-rock territories. Despite the lucrative prospect of touring with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Young, driven by his creative muse, returned to his solo pursuits, crafting rock anthems exemplified in albums like “After the Gold Rush.”
Following the acclaim garnered by hits like “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” Young’s subsequent album, “Harvest,” achieved iconic status, thanks to timeless tracks such as “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” Departing from his familiar environs, Young opted for Nashville, seeking to capture rustic sounds that resonated in his imagination.
In contrast to conventional recording practices, Young deliberately shunned traditional lineups for each song, often personally playing various instruments to achieve a distinct sonic quality. While rock legends like Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor contributed their expertise, they assumed unconventional roles, with Taylor, for instance, tackling a banjo despite being unfamiliar with the instrument. This departure from the norm drew criticism, exemplified by session drummer Kenny Buttery’s complaint that Young underutilized the talents at his disposal, quipping, “He hires some of the best musicians in the world and has them play as stupid as they possibly can.” Despite the challenges faced by the musicians, this spontaneous approach imbued the tracks with an organic authenticity.
Criticism of Young’s unconventional style extended beyond his solo career. Collaborating with Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Young frequently clashed with each band member. David Crosby later remarked on Young’s seemingly self-centered focus during the creation of some of the band’s classics. Reflecting on the Deja Vu years, Graham Nash highlighted the toxic atmosphere fueled by egos, especially intensified by Young’s presence: “This was pure toxic masculinity. It became more evident when Neil joined. I’ve stood in the middle of Stephen and Neil countless times, with these two stags talking to each other through guitar riffs.”
While Young’s idiosyncrasies might not have endeared him to every collaborator, his mastery of the studio environment remained indisputable. Despite the acquired taste of his recording style, the tenacity in his delivery permeated his greatest works, a testament to his determination to realize his artistic vision. Genius, though sometimes accompanied by challenges in interpersonal dynamics, plays a crucial role in shaping individuals into the artists they become.