Neil Young – ‘MTV Unplugged’

In March ’93 I returned to France with Keycamp, this time to Fréjus on the Côte d’Azur, to a smaller, more relaxed site than Vias Plage with more opportunity and need to speak French, which nearly thirty years later I’m still learning. In June that year Neil Young released his MTV Unplugged live album, and that was my beautiful summer earworm. Why I bought that and not Harvest or other ‘70s classic albums I assume was because I’d seen the MTV show in February, but regardless, I devoured its lavish simplicity.

Neil Young’s voice makes me shiver in a very, very good way. It’s totally unique like an about to crack falsetto. But it never does. It strains, sounds pained and gushes with emotion like the sound of tears singing. My senses die for it, as opposed to the low growl of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave who I’ve never been able to enjoy. My loss. On his MTV Unplugged album his voice is front and centre. Every song is performed in its purest form, with the likes of Mr Soul and Like A Hurricane and in particular Transformer Man almost unrecognisable from the original.

Performing songs from ‘67’s Mr Soul to tracks from Harvest Moon released in ’92 this was my second phase of discovery into Neil Young, following the previous year’s obsession with After The Goldrush. Listening to the album I had little idea about the origin of almost all these songs, so was listening with fresh and eager ears. There’s little on the album I didn’t love, but some songs hit me particularly hard. Mr Soul got me with simple guitar, harmonica and: I was down on a frown when the messenger brought me a letter / I was raised by the praise of a fan who said I upset her.” Such gorgeous torture.

Pocahontas and Stringman are both stunning through their musical restraint, leaving the anguish in Neil’s voice to heighten the intensity. The emotion increases on Like A Hurricane, performed on a pump organ the song just brought tears…

“You are like a hurricane
There’s calm in your eye
And I’m gettin’ blown away
To somewhere safer where the feelin’ stays
I wanna love you but I’m gettin’ blown away.”

Unrelenting, The Needle And The Damage Done and Helpless both keep the mood beautifully low, until the spirits lift and love, hope and happiness shine towards the set’s end. The harmonies on Transformer Man are angelic, matched on the adoring and sentimental homage to an Unknown Legend. I’d play that song to death, just to hear Neil sing: “I used to order just to watch her float across the floor.” Featuring Neil’s half sister Astrid on backing vocals and Nils Lofgren on autoharp, guitars and accordion, the band’s tone throughout is impeccable, his songs shone, and that summer my love for Neil Young just intensified. His down was just divine.

R.E.M – ‘Out Of Time’

My six months in the States was a trip. It opened my eyes, opened my mind and as the months went by I was growing as a person. I came back with a lifetime of memories and I came back wanting more. I also came back with R.E.M’s seventh studio album, Out Of Time. Prior to late ’91 I’d paid little attention to R.E.M. I’d liked the singles Orange Crush, Stand and Get Up, but those previous six albums didn’t get a sniff. But, once I’d got my ears into Out Of Time those earlier albums came thick and fast.

Losing My Religion was a majestic piece of music, and Shiny Happy People was big fun. Both were played to death and by the time my obsession with the album kicked in it was the other tracks I gorged. Out Of Time catapulted R.E.M from cultish indie-rockers to stadium-filling rock stars. It also seemed as their popularity increased so did their credibility. No mean feat. The opposite would apply to their rival of ‘Best Band In The World’ at the time, U2. R.E.M would soon peak with Automatic For The People while U2 went up their own artistic arses with Zooropa.

Out Of Time was a perfectly varied collection of styles and sounds, from vivacious to maudlin the songs made for a brilliantly uneven listen. Country-tinged, immaculately produced and brimming with mandolins, violins and cellos it was another subtle musical invention and catapulted the band to glory and lofty esteem, aided greatly by the anthemic Losing My Religion and their near constant appearances on MTV.

In the early ‘90s Nirvana were massive and the UK chart, post-madchester and pre-britpop was loaded with house, techno, dance and pop cheese. R.E.M didn’t fit in to any new sound or trend; they were instead unique and incomparable. I had an instant soft spot for Mike Mills’ perfect harmonies, and with piercing emotion and sincerity Michael Stipe’s vocals demanded attention. The B-52’s Kate Pierson also worked wonders, particularly on the gorgeous folk-jangle closer, Me In Honey. For six months I binged all things R.E.M. I bought and loved their previous six albums as well as the R.E.M Companion: It Crawled From The South, which accompanied me on my next adventure. France.