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In Defense of … Neil Young’s ‘Trans’

As the ’70s turned into the ’80s, there were a lot of changes going on in the musical landscape. Disco had died, New Wave was getting big and a lot of old-school artists didn’t know where to turn.

Many tried to jump on bandwagons and change their sounds, but in the case of Neil Young, he took experimental left turns because he’d always been fascinated with technology — partly because technology helped him communicate with his son Ben, who had cerebral palsy.

While many artists tried to stay on top of what was commercially viable at the time, Young clearly didn’t care. You have to admire the fact that he’s never been afraid to fail with his music. But his record company, Geffen, couldn’t quite grasp this concept, and the label’s founder and boss David Geffen was livid that Young wasn’t turning out more albums like the hit ‘Harvest.’

Eventually, Geffen sued Young for making music that wasn’t commercial, a stupid move the exec now regrets. But these days when you listen to ‘Trans’ — the straw that broke Geffen’s back — you’ll discover some interesting music.

On ‘Sample and Hold’ and ‘Computer Age,’ for example, Young and guitarist Nils Lofgren sing through Vocoders, giving their voices robotic sounds, which fit in with the album’s theme. And surprisingly, the music feels much more organic than you’d expect. Nothing sounds forced here.

The songs came off quite well in concert too — maybe better so. The ’80s cable series ‘Night Flight’ used to play the hell out of a concert from the ‘Trans’ tour from Berlin that fans probably stumbled on quite often back in the day. In addition to great performances of ‘Trans’ material, older Young classics like ‘Like a Hurricane’ were given powerful face lifts.

A lot of artists endlessly apologize for albums that flopped. Young has never done this. Even when his records took multiple hits from fans, critics and even his bosses, he’s always stood behind his music.

So while ‘Trans’ certainly wasn’t the second coming of ‘Harvest,’ it’s an interesting side trip for an artists who’s made many during his long career. Give it a listen. You might be surprised as to how relevant it all sounds today.

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