Recording of May 2002: Are You Passionate?

NEIL YOUNG: Are You Passionate?
Reprise 48111-2 (CD). 2002. Neil Young, Booker T. Jones, Duck Dunn, Poncho Sampedro, prods.; John Hanlon, eng.; Aaron Prellwitz, Alex Osborne, asst. engs.; Tim Mulligan, mix, mastering; John Hausmann, Denny Purcell, mastering; John Nowland, A/D transfer. AAD? TT: 65:29
Performance ****?
Sonics ****

Like Bob Dylan's, Neil Young's 1990s recordings were a mixed bag: some good (Sleeps With Angels), some less thrilling (Mirror Ball). Notorious not only for his recorded missteps (anything on Geffen from the mid-1980s), Young has also been known to swing from acoustic album to loud electric album and back. But, also like the resurgent Mr. Zimmerman, in the last two years Young has found new energy and a new laser focus. In 2000, his soft, Harvest/Comes A Time-like Gold & Silver was a triumph. Now, in Are You Passionate?, Young has claimed a middle ground rare for him: a smooth, tuneful, lightly funky album unlike almost anything else he's ever recorded.

Part of the reason is the presence of Hammond B-3 organ legend Booker T. Jones and bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn: two members of the MG's, the Memphis rhythm section that has added its distinctive driving beat to everything from Otis Redding and Sam and Dave to Eddie Floyd and The Blues Brothers (not to mention their own hit, "Green Onions"). The opening track, "You're My Girl," is a kind of slow, one-beat evocation of the whole Stax/Volt soul-music ethos. Deep into the record is "Be With You," Young's salute to and imitation of that classic Memphis sound, and Jones adds organ blips and burbles to the final track, "She's a Healer."

Young deftly answers the question of the album's title in 11 appealing tunes, and like Dylan's latest, "Love & Theft", this collection is most notable for the peace Young seems to have found—at least for the moment. "When I hold you in my arms, it's a breath of fresh air / When I hold you in my arms, I forget what's out there," he half sighs in "When I Hold You in My Arms." In "She's a Healer," he admits that "The touch of my woman can soothe my soul / When she makes me feel right that's when the good times roll."

But Are You Passionate?'s emotional heart is the trio of songs at its center. "Mr. Disappointment" has the kind of fragile singing Young evinced on "Only Love Will Break Your Heart," his high voice lingering over "I'd like to shake your hand, Disappointment / Looks like you win again, but this time might be the last." On the peppy "Differently," fuzzy electric guitar and organ drive the riff, and each line of the chorus begins with a chant of "differently," most in a tone not of hard-edged recrimination but of a gentle desire to do things...differently. A beautiful, relaxed guitar part highlights the last of these three and the album's strongest tune, "Quit (Don't Say You Love Me)." Young extols the power of love and his own resilience in a gentle bit of funk that also contains the record's strongest vocal performance. "Quit" is very much in a league with the best songs Young has written.

Not all of Young's pessimism has disappeared—it's obvious from the guitar rumble in the opening bars of "Goin' Home" that Crazy Horse has returned, if only for this song. Into a hazy narrative mixing personal discontent with Custer's Last Stand, Young drops this acid stanza: "Droppin' in on you my friend / It's just like old times / Said the fool who signed the paper / To assorted slimes." It's all set to the kind of archetypal Tomahawk Chop chant used by football teams with Indian nicknames, and churned out menacingly here by Frank Sampedro on electric guitar. Bizarre as that may sound, it works—and it's a nice, noisy change of pace in an otherwise reflective album.

Young has carefully crafted the sound of most of his recent albums, and Are You Passionate? is crackly, crisp, and spacious enough to suggest that this album was recorded in the famous barn pictured on Young's 1972 masterpiece, Harvest. It's a pleasure to hear Neil Young and Bob Dylan still turning on the jets in the opening decade of a new century.—Robert Baird