Neil Young refuses to be tied down. He’s an explorer letting the music take him wherever it will and each new album is a new experience for that.
On one disc you might get the “godfather of grunge” Neil, stomping through joyfully noisy rockers with his most steadfast band of brothers, Crazy Horse. At other times you might experience the Neil finding his way through new sounds…indulging guitar feedback or fronting a big band… sharing harmonies with Crosby, Stills, & Nash or finding common ground with Pearl Jam or Booker T. & the M.G.’s.
And then, of course, there is the quiet Neil…putting his fragile but compelling voice and his introspective lyrics into a sonic tapestry anchored by guitars (slide, acoustic, and steel), harmonicas, and sweet harmonies.
As the title might give away, Prairie Wind is of a piece with other “quiet Neil” gems like Harvest, Comes a Time, and Harvest Moon.
Young’s recent health problems (he was treated for a brain aneurysm during the making of this disc) may have caused him to contemplate his mortality…the lovely “Falling Off the Face of the Earth” and “Here for You” both sound like a valentines/apologies/eternal pledges of love to his wife (who sings harmony on a lot of these songs) and the wistful “Far from Home” (a jaunty stroll propelled by a rollicking horn section and some wailing harmonica work) looks back while asking to buried “out on the prairie” so that he indeed won’t be far from home…but they didn’t rein in his wit (he name checks both Chris Rock and Willie Nelson on the acerbic “No Wonder”.)
“It’s a Dream”, another plaintive love song/remembrance of times past, is informed to nice effect by accents from a mournful string section. The horn section serves a similar function on the title song.
The sweet “This Old Guitar”, a tribute to the everlasting power of music, features harmony vocals by the incomparable Emmylou Harris. The playful “He was the King”, a gently rocking paean to Elvis, showcases Neil at his sprightliest here and it’s a lot of fun.
The album ends on an ethereal grace note with “When God Made Me’, a plaintive hymn with soothing backing vocals by the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Prairie Wind is a soothing, contemplative gem of a record (good job, “Quiet Neil”.)