Neil Young is one of the most influential musicians of all time, and without him, music and popular culture would be a very different beast than what it is today.
There are three key components to Young’s musicianship. The first is that he is an outstanding guitarist with a knack for writing heartfelt melodies that still manage to retain a grit and an unmistakable authenticity. Whether it be on the acoustic or electric, Young has given us many stellar moments on the six-string over the years, and he inspired a generation of guitarists that includes Thurston Moore, Kurt Cobain, Jonny Greenwood and Noel Gallagher.
The other key components of his artistry are his songwriting ability and his vocal style, which are inextricably linked. Ostensibly, Young is a poet, and the beauty of his words are elevated by the power of his voice, which is one of the most emotive out there.
Whether it be ‘The Needle and the Damage Done’, ‘Ambulance Blues’ or ‘Hey Hey, My My’, Young’s extensive back catalogue is brimming with songs that are so emotionally affecting that for some, they are virtually unlistenable. He understands the force of his words, that they are the best way of achieving personal catharsis and relieving the frustrations of others.
It is the universal appeal of many of Young’s work that has made him so celebrated. He wasn’t afraid to champion the craft of songwriting whilst everyone around him was concerning themselves with lofty subjects and technical peacocking. This has imbued his work with a timeless quality that will still be astounding people long after we have departed from this mortal coil.
Given that Young is so renowned, this has made many seek out his sage wisdom, as he’s a man whose seen and done it all, both in terms of his artistry and in his personal life. Whilst he’s usually unequivocal in his messaging, he once gave some advice to fellow Canadians Arcade Fire that was lacking the power that you might expect.
After a Thanksgiving feast when the band were working on their 2013 masterpiece Reflektor, Young gave them a surreal piece of advice that says more about how he lives his life than any song. It was Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler who recalled the anecdote in 2014 during an interview with the star of The Office, Rainn Wilson.
“It was the end of the night and we were leaving,” Butler said, “And he’s like, ‘Well, guys, have fun making your album. Or it can not be fun at all, that’s fine too. Doesn’t matter if it’s fun.’”
Brushing over this bizarre account of Young, “There’s conflict that’s supposed to be in making something good,” Butler appended. “There’s, like, inherent conflict. It’s not something to be scared of.”
You can’t help but think that “doesn’t matter if it’s fun” is a rule that Neil Young has adhered to his whole life. He’s never been the most jovial of songwriters.