Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams II is the kind of record that threatens to be weighed down by its own odd mythology. The album is the sequel to a record that doesn’t actually exist, referencing the name of a collection of recordings that Young shelved in the 70s. Given its strange pedigree, and perhaps more importantly the prolific Young’s recent string of middling albums, Chrome Dreams II seems doomed to be underwhelming.
Remarkably, though, Chrome Dreams II succeeds in transcending both its own mythology and Young’s iconoclasm. He retreats from his recent embrace of single-genre discs like the often plodding guitar rock of Glendale and the clunky country of Prairie Wind. Instead, Chrome Dreams II, in spite of its amalgam of genres, is an exhilarating return to form.
The disc begins with a duo of country-rock tracks that, perhaps because of their vintage (a number of the album’s tracks were penned or recorded in the mid-80s), immediately restore the missing sense of poignancy that has marred Young’s recent output. The lush production is simple and superb, particularly on the opener, ‘Beautiful Bluebird.’ Understated slide guitar mixes beautifully with Young’s voice and harmonica to create a sonic palette of startling richness.
But the album’s first two cuts are merely opening salvos. The record’s high point comes early on, in the form of ‘Ordinary People’. This legendary track, at least among ardent fans, was recorded in 1988 and its appearance here is its first official release. Clocking in at 18 minutes and 13 seconds, the song is a rock and roll tour de force: an anthemic and bombastic populist declaration, complete with blaring horns and fiery guitar solos.
Elsewhere, the genre-hopping continues, meandering from noisy rock to more subdued country and folk. But what the album lacks in musical cohesiveness it makes up for in Young’s unifying lyrical theme of spirituality, striking an appealing positivist pose.
With Chrome Dreams II, Young has made an utterly beautiful record that happily avoids the pretensions that might be attached to an album with such a strange and storied history. Here’s to hoping we don’t have to wait too long for a worthy sequel.