The more Neil Young changes, the more he remains the same: the Loner as the Looker. His newest album, "Trans" (Geffen GHS2018), breaks new ground even as it paws over the old. Perhaps a little late, Young has discovered that the computer age is upon us, and he has responded with an album that belongs as much in the future as in the past. Yet in mixing new tools (rhythm machines, synths and vocoders) with old wisdoms (ecological and social commitment), "Trans" seems ambivalent about the present.
In some ways, the album is Young's most commercial since his 1971 "Harvest," yet the sterling production and fine playing (by what's left of Crazy Horse, Nils Lofgren and Ben Keith) are offset on five songs by the heavy-handed electronic alteration of Young's already ungainly cracked tenor.
On "Computer Age" and the familiarly weepy "Transformer Man" (a decidedly odd variation on "Southern Man"), he is absolutely unintelligible (praise be for liner notes), as a vocoder either distorts the lyric into the stratosphere or muffles it in thick harmonies. "Computer Cowboy" can't quite decide what mode it's in, so Lofgren's harsh guitar "argues" with the synthesizer. Ironically, on several cuts, it's the old-fashioned guitar, supposedly going out of style, that gives the synth-dominated tunes what little bite they have.
Yet on "We R in Control" and "Sample and Hold," Young sustains his New Age infatuation without losing the listener. On "Control," he drifts between the cynical humor of Devo and the detached patina of Kraftwerk. "Sample and Hold" suggests yet another direction, a confused robotic humanism: a muted exchange of parameters ("Hair-blonde/Eyes-blue/Weight-110/ Disposition-even/Mood code-rotary adjusting") and includes a pinched request ("I need a unit to sample and hold/ But not the lonely one/ A new design, new design"). The more things change, the more they stay the same, apparently.
As long as Young suffers from digital-alis (and the uninspiring anthems and mundane use of synthesizers and effects suggest they are precious but passing fad gadgets), he could do worse than absorb some of the impish iconoclasm that elevates Laurie Anderson's explorations of the same territory.
One inkling that Young hasn't lost his perverse sense of humor is a remake of "Mr. Soul," the classic Buffalo Springfield song first cut in 1967 and reenergized here with an ear to the future.
The old Neil Young surfaces more clearly on two love songs, the country-rockish "Little Thing Called Love" (it has the innocent exuberance of a McGarrigles song, particularly the resolution of the last line in the chorus) and "Hold On to Your Love," a smooth, shuffling ballad in which the keyboards are a wash, not a wave. Another song, "If You Got Love," is listed on the album cover and its lyrics are provided, but Young apparently pulled it at the last minute.
Even more familiar and reassuring is the long closing cut, "Like an Inca," eight minutes of visionary epic that begins in apocalyptic tension ("The Gypsy told my fortune/She said that nothin' showed") and ends in cultural optimism ("I feel sad/But I feel happy/As I'm coming back to home/There's a bridge across the river/that I have to cross alone/like skipping rolling stone/Like an Inca.") Rejecting the specter of time's end implicit in the line, "Who put the bomb on the sacred altar?" Young chooses to fight back step by step: "If you want to get high/build a strong foundation/Sink those pylons deep/and reach for the sky." Anchored in a haunting melody line and sparked by some sharp guitar, the song promulgates an open-ended humanism that has coursed through Young's career and confirms that his best work continues within a context of warm, unfettered emotion. Characteristically, when Young plays the Baltimore Civic Center next Tuesday, it will be as a solo, acoustic act.
If Young has sustained an image as the introspective Loner, Ric Ocasek of the Cars takes it one step further and comes across as The Outsider. His work is professionally jittery, as if he's setting tapes of his therapy sessions to music. It happens that Ocasek's a master of the recording studio, but there's a constant tug between sonic warmth and intellectual cool that isn't helped by his metronomic rigidity. The passion of the other Cars members has tempered his dispassionate disposition, but on his first solo album, "Beatitudes" (Geffen GHS2022), Ocasek never leaves the darkness long enough to open the door. When he sings, "I live in a world of night screams and rainbows," one suspects it's the screams he enjoys.
For this album, Ocasek has opted for support from the wealth of unknown musicians he's been willing to produce or guide; as a result, there's a nonglossy sheen to the 10 tunes that might have been lost by using high-priced studio musicians. The sound is even more electro-popish than the Cars, and generally less guitary (the exception being Fuzzbee Morse's acid accents in "Time Bomb").
Yet "Beatitudes" still comes across as multilayered high-tech, its pristine clarity offset by the obvious detachment of its central figure. The hook-laden "Jimmy Jimmy," with its echoes of "Shake It Up," is full of the vigilant adolescence that will connect Ocasek and a young (record-buying) audience, but despite its surface tensions, there's something cloying about its thematic redundance, all the way from "Nothing to do/can't think of anything to do" to "Are you pretending/nothing's wrong/America/I can happen here." This is Pol-Lit 101 reduced to a fractious four minutes.
Elsewhere, Ocasek is intelligent yet naive (the hurt of "Prove" and the anxiety of "Connect Up to Me") or obsessed (the apocalypse sound rendered as paranoia in "Sneak Attack" and as anxiety in "Time Bomb"). It doesn't help that his voice is flat and dull, even when it's electronically enhanced; it's as if Ocasek's not really there. And even dressed up in cool but catchy dance beats or wrapped in layers of precise, often hypnotic production and edgy dynamics--a cross between the fire of the Velvet Underground and the ice of Roxy Music--Ocasek's music refuses to snuggle in the mind. It's grimace rock that's not worth bearing.