Lost gems: Neil Young’s Mirrorball

“There’s a place called Downtown / Where the hippies all go / And they dance the charleston / And they do the limbo / Yeah the hippies all go there / ‘Cause they want to be seen”

Stream – ‘Throw your hatred down’

There comes a time when the penny drops and you realise the age you are in and you do a spot of self-assessment. You look around, get in touch with your peers and just see what they are up to. Are they the same people you knew 20 years ago? Did the values and ideals they sported still hold up or have they been changed, whether by “selling out” or by the realisation that they weren’t feasible?

Now imagine you are someone who has been through thick and thin. You played in a couple of legendary concerts, you lost people close to you to drugs and you had a hillbilly band diss you in a couple of songs. You’ve experimented loads of genres, just because you wanted the freedom of embracing the evolution of music. The acclaim you never got from your peers is slowly creeping in and a new generation is discovering your oeuvre thanks to a bunch of rag tags wearing flannel who are using feedback in ways you’ve never thought someone else would do. Surely not since you were on stage with a couple of Jawas.

One of these upstarts asks you to drop by and play with them at the MTV Video Music Awards. You jam out a bonafide classic and find that the age gap doesn’t mean fuck if the music is tuned in the same wavelength and if the passion is sported by the people you share the stage with.

So after the media’s chosen figurehead of this generation of rag tags passes away (murder or suicide, still debated) and you hear that he mentions you in the text of his suicide note, what do you? You record one album, partially based on the worries of his generation. You immerse yourself into their Zeitgeist and try to “pay it forward”. Your album, called Sleeps with angels, sounds harsh, moody, full of gloom but still breaches the sarcasm of a younger generation. But still, you want to do more.

Once you’ve tapped into them and understood them, you record an album, with your feelings dripping from your flannel sleeve, like you always did. You get those younglings who you jammed with at VMA ceremony and record an album in four days with some songs that you wrote and some that were born from those 96 hours. A jammy, organic album full of honest lyrics and your usual chord progressions, with the added kick of a young generation that utterly adores you.

You are Neil Young and in the studio is also Pearl Jam (minus Eddie Vedder, hiding from a stupid stalker), working as your backing band. The result is Mirrorball, an album with lyrical teams ranging from abortion (‘Act of love’, ‘Song X’), selling out  and age (‘Downtown’), wars (‘Throw your hatred down’) and how the more things change, the more they stay the same (‘I’m the ocean’).

For starters, it has to be said that Pearl Jam really pull it through. Jeff Ament and Jack Irons rhythm section is a force to be reckoned with, specially considering the short time for rehearsal and recordings (although by the sound of the banter in some tracks, there probably was no rehearsal). Mike McCready and Stone Gossard manage not to choke up when being paired with a bonafide guitar genius, who also manages to never upstage anyone in the album. All instruments get their respective place, and, like previously stated, it’s a very organic album. And, hey, Eddie Vedder does manage to contribute for a bit (he’s “blink and you miss” in ‘Peace and love’).

They all feel free, like good friends just having fun in a garage. No constraints, no self-imposed rules nor tunnel vision, just eleven tracks with a lot of reflectiveness and some serious solos (check the one in ‘Throw your hatred down’, the song streaming right now).

Young‘s lyrics are never self-righteous and they never look down on the listener. Lyrics-wise, my heart will always be with ‘I’m the ocean’, a song inspired by Neil Young driving around Los Angeles during O.J. Simpson‘s murder trial (“…the testimony of/ Expert witnesses on the brutal crimes of love”). His observations are like a page from a diary, wondering about the Vietnam generation (“Homeless heroes walk the streets of their own town”), the numbing down of our collective lives through television (“Need random violence, need Entertainment Tonight”) , how he might be an outsider to his own peers (“People my age, they don’t do the things I do”) and conceding that although the generation gap is there, he will pay attention (“I can’t hear you, but I feel the things you say /I can’t see you, but I know what’s sin my way”). It’s a seven minute monster but the whole song is a slice of an era of confusion, seen from the eyes of someone who survived an even more confusing and cruel time.

Yeah, I really like that song. It’s one of those songs that strikes a chord in your heart and although Neil Young has an impressive back catalogue, this album is the one I revisit the most. Not only because I’m a big fan of Pearl Jam, but because I can really identify with the songs in this album (I’m from that generation). So many ideas rushing through my head seem to be plastered all over this. A couple of songs inspired me to write short stories too, so the least I could do to pay it forward to this album is to write about it.

I really like how between the distortion and rock moments, there is time to do some slow, calm pieces. There’s two  and they re-use musical motifs from the album, but in a minimalistic approach:  it’s only an organ and Neil Young‘s brittle voice, doing a little segue (‘What happened yesterday’) and a epilogue (‘Fallen angel’). Anger and frustration paired with reflectiveness and acceptance. It’s a couple of beautiful moments in an already stunning album. If you like how this sounds, I really gotta recommend you check Neil Young‘s unplugged: he deconstructs ‘Like a hurricane’ into a haunting piece (again, only organ and voice).

A consequence of Mirrorball was the change in style for Pearl Jam. If they were already professed fans of Neil Young (again, I mention that VMA 93 performance with him, superb), Young‘s presence and songwriting sensibilities stuck and they show perfectly on Pearl Jam‘s next album, 1996’s amazing No code (the one with the polaroids). Songs like ‘Smile’, ‘Off he goes’ (dedicated to Young) and ‘Red Mosquito’ (which sounds like an alternate take of ‘Song x’) feel like they are paying it forward to the grandfather of grunge, while still having their own identity. That’s all I will say for the meantime as next week’s Lost gems will be about this Pearl Jam album (with a mention to the transition single Merkin ball).

All in all, do yourself a favour and check Mirrorball. It’s a true gem of the 90’s, a perfect piece of grunge and a primary example of how a band can gel together so well that it stops being different individuals and becomes just a collective being, speaking musical platitudes about this life.

Words: Sam J. Valdés López

Check the album on Spotify.

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