String together songs such as “Cortez the Killer,” “Pocahontas,” “Like an Inca,” “Powderfinger,” “Goin’ Home” and others from throughout Neil Young’s career, and you get a Howard Zinn-like alternative history of New World conquest, an accounting of what has been lost by indigenous people and the environment to violence and greed.
With “Americana” (Reprise), Young funnels that worldview through a series of folk standards, some so ancient and familiar that they are now thought of as quaint, children’s songs, ingrained in the heads of kindergartners by the million. But these songs also tell a deeper story about how America was built, and the album lays it out without sugarcoating.
In folk tradition, Young gives the songs new life by boldly reconfiguring (and electrifying) them with his longtime band Crazy Horse, their first collaboration since 2003. For this quartet with decades of shared history, the process of recording is a kind of folk music; they set up and play in real time, letting the music ebb and surge in the moment with little regard to technical precision or steady tempos. Snippets of conversation between songs enhance the feeling of a studio session with all the formality of a campfire sing-along.
An unusually intense sing-along with electric guitars, that is. These performances don’t want to further embalm the folk classics, they aim to amplify the blood and violence beneath the pre-school-approved melodies. Young’s guitar punches out Morse Code notes, shadowboxing with Frank “Pancho” Sampedro’s rhythm guitar and Billy Talbot’s bass. Ralph Molina’s drumming moves like a locomotive: deliberate, massive, punctuated by cymbal splashes that suggest a train-whistle blast.
Together, they strip the songs of easy familiarity and create a narrative of how America was shaped and at what cost. The tragedy of “Clementine” is laid bare with ghostly harmonies, thundering tom-tom drums and craggy guitars. “Tom Dula” loses the buoyancy of the Kingston Trio hit version from the ‘50s (when it was known as “Tom Dooley”). The backing chorus sounds like the restless hectoring of a crowd gathered in the town square for a hanging. They circle like vultures as Young burrows into the song’s brooding, murder-ballad origins.
The very next track, “Gallows Pole,” shifts the perspective to the condemned, who pleads for a little more time so that his lover might arrive to bribe the executioner for his freedom. In this cut-throat world, darkly comedic relief is provided by “Get a Job,” in which Crazy Horse injects the silky elegance of doo-wop with a shot of recession blues. The deceptively jaunty, country-flavored “Travelin’ On” traces the path of a drifter on the lam.
In the end, everyone meets the same fate.
“Lord, I’m gonna die,” Young sings with the exhausted resignation of a miner digging his own grave in “High Flyin’ Bird.” He is teased by the Sun he cannot see and the freedom of the birds who remind him of his own limitations. This tortured lament is answered by the “Wayfarin’ Stranger,” who quietly longs for death so that he might be released from “this world of woe.”
It all gets washed away in “Jesus’ Chariot” (also known as “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain”). The old spiritual rolls like the Apocalyptic tidal wave described in the lyrics, growing in size and power with each verse. Young never sounds as mighty as he does with Crazy Horse, but this performance delivers not just might, but something like terror. Young sounds almost deranged as he repeats, “We will kill the old, red rooster when she comes.” No, not by a long shot is this your kindergarten brand of folk music. “Americana” reveals the hard truth inside songs that have been taken for granted. Not anymore.