Neil Young and the Poetics of Energy (review)

Echard, William. Neil Young and the Poetics of Energy.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. 260 pp. ISBN 0-253-21768-7 (paperback).

Topia, 2007.

William Echard’s Neil Young and the Poetics of Energy (Indiana University Press, 2005) provides an instance of the small-but-growing catalogue of scholarly books about the music and meaning of individual popular music artists. By “poetics of energy,” Echard means a “family of metaphors” involving Neil Young’s compositional choices aligning themselves with broader social work, such as through forceful and oppositional identity formation, expressive intensity, meaning and gesture, the use of space, mobility, noise, and aggression vs. introspection. Throughout parts of the book, the author engages not only with interpretive ideas introduced by scholars in philosophy, cultural studies, and music, but also with the reception of Young’s work among rock critics and others.

Chapter 1, “Words: A Neil Young Reception Primer,” begins with Neil Young’s early work in the US (1966-71), including his expectation-defying aesthetic, his unusually-mournful voice, and his often-abstract or emotionally-ambiguous variant of the “singer-songwriter.” The first of Echard’s many “mini-studies” problematizes Young’s perceived “gendering” of his quieter, “produced,” pop side as “feminine” vs. his louder, raw, or experimental rock side as “male.” Initially focusing on the 1972 country-rock-influenced hit album Harvest, the section then mainly establishes the book’s primary pattern of referencing songs from across Young’s career. The middle of the chapter continues with a kind of historical overview, including Young’s 1973-75 period of bleak abjection, his more positively-spun period of the late 1970s, and his eclectic/confrontational approach to the 1980s—the latter interpreted partly through ideas borrowed from George Lipsitz and Linda Hutcheon. Echard follows this with a section covering Young’s return to an acoustic/electric split starting in 1989, as well as his 1990s’ connections to grunge and experimental rock. The chapter ends with a discussion of Young’s schematic “stylistic incarnations” and “typical features” (i.e., from particular traditions) to improve on earlier concepts of genre and style. Some of these areas (involving aspects of singer-songwriting, garage rock, and soft rock) prove more useful than others (involving aspects of folk revival, progressive rock, and country music).

In Chapter 2, “Unlock the Secrets: Waywardness and the Rock Canon,” Echard expands and improves on the style/genre/tradition discussion of the end of Chapter 1 by focusing on Neil Young’s use of surprise and inter-musical competency. This relates to the concept of dialogism and engages with work by Ingrid Monson. In Young’s work, rock music functioned as the centripetal, “over-arching category,” with areas such as country music and the blues contributing or reinforcing centrifugal forces. Echard convincingly suggests that Young embraced the persona of a “rock icon” precisely at the two moments (the late 1970s and the 1990s) when some writers argued that rock music had died. He then spends the latter sections of the chapter discussing Young’s “centripetal waywardness,” his refusal of external definition, his self-reliance, and how this relates—and despite rock critics’ positive view of his “instinctiveness”—to his “auteur” control of such things as recording technology, instruments, amplifiers, and stylistic pastiches.

Chapter 3, “The Liquid Rage: Noise and Improvisation,” veers back in the direction of Neil Young’s alignment with concepts of noise (partly via the ideas of Jacques Attali), distortion, chaos, and a “noisy” resistance to systems of control. Young’s engagement with “noise vs. silence” included not only the elaborate, orchestral arrangements done with Jack Nitzsche (e.g., providing certain types of spatial effects and contrasts), but also the similar attention-to-detail within Young’s rock band song arrangements and even in the set of identifiable tendencies used in improvised guitar solos and “centrifugal” group instrumentals performed with the band Crazy Horse. (This discussion partly relies on previously-published interviews with Young and several band members.) The rest of the chapter focuses on the 1991 sound-collage Arc. In that work, Young structured an experimental, 35-minute work out of “noise”—thirty-seven hard rock, largely-instrumental moments, which Young called “sparks.” He derived these from his (and Crazy Horse’s) live explorations of songs otherwise found within a variety of Young’s styles, genres, and traditions. This is a fascinating selection to exemplify Echard’s themes in this chapter, but it is also fairly obscure.

In Chapter 4, “Have You Ever Been Singled Out?: Popular Music and Musical Signification,” Echard steps back from the book’s intense involvement with Neil Young in order to introduce an especially intense involvement with interpretive theory. This involves a “social structures in practice” and “music as semiotic object” convergence of previously-separated semiotic approaches to popular music (such as homology) vs. Western concert music (such as topic theory). Central to this are iconicity, the body, cognitive theory, metaphorical mapping (which, for example, can involve space and energy), conceptual blending, structuralism vs. post-structuralism, and indexicality. The discussion substantially engages with ideas from C. S. Peirce (sometimes via David Lidov), Lawrence Zbikowski, and others.

Chapter 5, “You See Your Baby Loves to Dance: Musical Style,” is among the book’s most readable sections, because it divides up examples of Neil Young’s songwriting practices into useful sub-sections. This includes Young’s piston- or motor-like approach to rhythm guitar and his use of first-position extended chords (both of which he also often used in his piano-based songs) and his use, for dramatic effects, of specifically-shaped gestures and (on electric guitar) “just-breaking-up” timbres. Echard’s discussion of riffs engages with work by Susan Fast, and the following two sections cover Young’s use of harmonica and piano. The chapter’s middle section more closely relates to the methodology derived in Chapter 4, including compelling explorations of Young’s melodic metaphors of drifting, ranting, “flow and pause,” and inverse arches. The following section on chord changes is less compelling, because it suddenly (after 183 pages) introduces descriptive technical information about harmonic progressions—but without making higher-level interpretations concerning the various songs mentioned. The chapter concludes by discussing aspects of Young’s idiosyncratic singing voice (e.g., generally quite high in pitch) and often in combination with considerations of his physicality. Echard ultimately aligns this with his metaphors of Young’s contrasting approaches of drifting/vulnerable fragility vs. ranting/assertive flamboyance.

Chapter 6, “Will to Love,” takes the “toolkit” of ideas developed in Chapters 4-5 and applies them to a sustained interpretation of a single piece of Neil Young’s music: the highly-introspective and relatively-obscure 1977 song “Will to Love.” This controversial song (which the author partly introduces with relevant comments by rock critics, fans, and Young himself) is structurally unusual, features multiple overdubs, and contains bizarre sound effects, such as a heavy use of tremolo and a crackling fireplace. However, it also provides a Young-summarizing allegory of a restless, struggling-but-doomed salmon. By spending an entire chapter on this one song, Echard can appropriately focus his interpretive interests towards its particular sonic features (such as contrasting harmonic progressions and a conceptual blending of recording and arrangement), as well as towards a metaphor of formlessness/fluidity/wavering combined with a slow-but-relentless linear process. However, he then ends the chapter by stepping quite far back from this in order to map his interpretive practice (in Figure 6.1 and the surrounding exegesis). He ends the book by acknowledging the more “living” concept of homeostasis and the philosophical idea of truth/falsity as possible, alternative conceptualizations for the understanding of centers, peripheries, centripetal forces, and centrifugal forces.

The book suffers from a lack of chronological continuity, largely because the author only occasionally stays with an individual work (i.e., Arc and “Will to Love”) long enough to give it its proper due. Within his various “mini-studies” (though rarely in Chapter 2 and not at all during the very different agenda of Chapter 4), he generally mentions several songs in passing. In most cases (especially in Chapters 1, 3, and 5, but even in parts of Chapter 6), he does this with material spanning up to thirty-seven years. This suggests a fan-centredness—and a “shuffle” strategy—far beyond the scope of material that most of his fellow scholar-fans would necessarily tolerate. Echard probably selected many of his examples in order to avoid “canonizing” better-known Neil Young songs and/or to avoid contributing to an overstatement of a classic “rock era.” (On the other hand, Chapter 5 does tend to reference such songs, and the book also rarely contextualizes Young’s music by mentioning anyone else’s music.) In addition, Echard’s significantly contrasting approaches from chapter to chapter evoke Neil Young’s own central characteristic of “surprise.” Despite the resultant difficulties of song-accessibility, the book provides an important entry in the growing field of single-artist popular music studies.

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