God help Neil Young for making a record that could justify what Dave Marsh has written about his music. Broken Arrow lacks any real center of gravity. As a result, it meanders, indulges in whimsy, and is largely dull. “I’m a little bit here, I’m a little bit there,” Young sings in “Scattered [Let’s Think About Livin’]”, one of the more revealing and painfully evident moments.
The songs themselves aren’t at all bad. Young’s West Coast leanings and hippie longings are largely intact. “Big Time”, the album’s first song, makes this apparent: “I’m still living the dream we had,” Young sings. “For me, it’s not over.” The song rumbles along from verse to verse — for close to 7 1/2 minutes. The next two songs last nearly 20 minutes. But the performances simply don’t merit those lengths. “Loose Change” holds an F chord for so long that I thought the CD was stuck.
Young is one of the few guitarists who plays from the heart. Often, the result is raw, untutored, loud and glorious. But the music here, especially in its extended forms, seems largely uninspired and occasionally contrived. The mix is too muddy in most places. Only on “Slip Away” does the gritty intention hit the mark, with Young’s background vocals adding a dreamy element.
Belaboring what doesn’t exist only obscures the album’s higher points. “Changing Highways”, an amplified country exercise, succeeds with a nicely distorted harmonica and guitar and makes its point in just over two minutes. But shorter times have less to do with success than a unifying theme. Sleeps with Angels, perhaps Young’s best album, took its shape from specific circumstances (chiefly, Kurt Cobain’s suicide; others, Young wouldn’t discuss) and its sound from a decidedly un-Crazy Horse-like Crazy Horse. On Broken Arrow, the playing sounds largely circumstantial. Even the tacked-on live version of Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do?”, recorded during Young and Crazy Horse’s surreptitious billing as the Travelling Echos at a California roadhouse, sounds puzzling. What’s the point? That he played? That this particular take was so boring that people chatted over the music, then cheered at the end as though they were captivated?
Neil Young, ever the sensitive iconoclast, can do better, and he will. This is his first recording since the death of his longtime producer David Briggs, which may explain some of the confusion that shrouds most of it.