The release of a new Neil Young album is fast becoming an annual event, on the order of the swallows returning to Capistrano or the buzzards coming home to Hinkley. It is an event preceded by guarded anticipation, greeted with a suitable amount of media hoopla and remembered with a confused sense of fondness and longing. The arrival of "Comes a Time" (Warner/Reprise MSK 2256), Neil Young's 12th solo album in a little over 10 years, is just such an occurrence.

Public anticipation of "Comes a Time" was certainly understandable, based on Young's performance on "American Stars and Bars," his last (1977) collection of previoulsy unreleased material. Nearly every cut on "Stars and Bars" was a dusty country-rock jewel, whether it flashed fiercely ("Like a Hurricane"), twinkled sweetly ("Star of Bethlehem") or merely shined sublimely ("Will to Love"). Resounding with the soprano urgency of Linda Ronstadt and Nicolette Larson on background vocals, and the rough-and-tumble rowdiness of Crazy Horse's instruments, "American Stars and Bars" is a hard act to follow. Harder, perhaps, than Neil Young ever realized.

Young would probably be the first to admit that "Comes a Time" is as commercial an effort as "Harvest," the countrified 1972 disc which yielded "Heart of golf" his only No. 1 single. "Comes a Time," however, far outshines "Harvest" by several magnitudes of planning and engineering. Culling 10 radio-length tunes from a musical storehouse which reportedly contains over 175 unreleased album-quality songs, Young enlisted the talents of 40 musicians (collectively known as the "Gone With the Wind Orchestra") and 10 engineers, and utilized the facilities of six studios, from Redwood City to London, to produce the new LP. He even rejected the first pressing of 200,000 discs, citing technical faults.

Why the sudden fanatic attention to detail from the same Neil Young who admitted to recording the clumsy "Tonight's the Night" "very high on tequila" "Soul and depth matter most," Young explained recently. "After five or six albums going in one direction, my feelings demanded that I really craft an album."

And craft he did, perhaps to excess. "Comes a Time" suffers from its own homogenized perfection, a particularly grievous state of affairs when one recalls the icomoclastic musical legacy that stretches out behing Neil Young like a string of burning bridges. Gone is the populist political fervor of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Ohio," the bitter Kent State protest song which became a thorn in the side of the Nixon administration and an anthem of sorts for the antiwar movement. Nowhere on the new album is there anything as righteously scolding as "Southern Man," whose stinging, condescending lyrics ("Southern man, better keep you head/Don't forget what your Good Book said") prompted Lynyrd Skynyrd to warn Neil Young, in "Sweet Home Alabama," that "Southern man don't need him around anyhow."

What "Comes a Time" offers instead is a wistful return to roots, a confident decision to relive "the old folkie days" alluded to in "Ambulance Blues" (1974). As Young sings on title cut, "Comes a time when you're drifting/Comes a time when you settle down." He evidently intends to shelve the fury, water down the lover's angst and save the existential confusion for another time. The result is predictably soothing, melodious and, in some ways, as evocative as the scimitar-edged guitar work and bitterly ironic lyrics of "Zuma," his 1975 lovelorn masterpiece.

The two finest tunes on the album are found on the second side and their marvelous lyrical wistfulness almost redeems the triteness of the first side. "Already One" is a fond remembrance of Young's marriage to actress Carrie Snodgress, a union which produced their son Zeke. Between Ben Keith's pedal steel lines, Young artfully waxes sentimental ("We're already one/Our little son/Won't let us forget") and philosophical ("I can't believe how love last awhile/And looks like forever/In the first place"). The serenity of the lyrics and the delivery blaze a new and strangely domestic trail for the author of "The Loner."

"Four Strong Winds," the only song on the album not written by Neil Young (it belongs to Canadian folk-singers Ian and Sylvia Tyson), takes Young back to where he seems most confident and, at the same time, vulnerable: in the land of country music.

In my new life, I'm traveling light

Eyes wide open for the next move.

I can't go on, till I get right

But I'm not falling back in the same groove.

For all its emotional flatness and uniformity of tone, "Comes a Time" is satisfying enough to elicit a certain fondness, while at the same time producing a unmistakably longing for the anger and vulnerability that once typified Neil Young's contribution to the art.