Why Neil Young’s Run of ’90s Successes Ended With ‘Broken Arrow’
Unmoored creatively by the death of his long-time producer, Neil Young's '90s-era career resurgence suddenly came apart.
He turned to his old friends in Crazy Horse for Broken Arrow, released on July 2, 1996, and to a title that recalled his days in Buffalo Springfield. But something had changed, despite his recent recognition as a forefather for grunge and appearances on package tours where the average fan's age was in the early 20s.
Young clearly didn't know how to move forward without the late David Briggs. (In a telling moment, he sings "I'm a little bit here; I'm a little bit there," during the song "Scattered.") So, he looked back. The idea, Young said back then, was to follow advice he'd gotten from Briggs, just before his death in November 1995.
“He told me to keep it simple and focused, have as much of my playing and singing as possible – and not to hide it with other things,” Young later said of Briggs, who died after producing 18 of his albums dating back to 1968. “Don’t embellish it with other people I don’t need or hide it in any way. Simple and focused. That’s what I took away. He didn’t exactly say that, but I got that message.”
Listen to Neil Young Perform 'Big Time'
And so the dark intensity that surrounds Broken Arrow is blanketed by this sloppy, sloggy spontaneity, a free-form lack of focus rekindled during a series of low-key gigs held before official sessions began – including a two-week stand at the 150-seat Old Princeton Landing near Young's northern California ranch. The albums starts like a jam session, with three extended pieces, before finally relenting with a few more structured pieces on side two.
It's clear, on one level, that Young had his heart in it. ("I'm still living in the dream we had," Young sings in "Big Time," seeming to reference Briggs directly. "For me, it's not over.") But, in the end, Broken Arrow couldn't advance Young's considerable legend. As loud as it is disjointed, this is the sound of his wheels spinning – and, at least to some degree, Young knew it.
“They’ll shit on this one,” Young confided to Jimmy McDonough, author of the biography Shakey. “I’ve given them a moving target. There’s enough weaknesses in this one for them to go for it. … It’s purposefully vulnerable and unfinished. I wanted to get one under my belt without David.”
He was right to worry. Critics, even those who'd recently all but sanctified Young, pounced. Spin magazine, for instance, had named Young its artist of the year just three years before. They said Broken Arrow "makes you wonder whether Young has grown so confident in his complacency that he could play out his career as solidly and unceremoniously as, say, Muddy Waters – never dismissed, but taken for granted."
Listen to Neil Young Perform 'Scattered'
Young pushed back, insisting that he was simply trying to find his way, and that the Buffalo Springfield-influenced title reflected that quest. "For years and years I tried to make records sounding unfinished, with the result of watering down the authentic and raw," he said back then. "This time I left the songs as they are, but I couldn't find a title. I asked myself: What does this album mean to me? To me it represents the fun, the frankness and the liberty of people who played together, like we did 30 years ago."
Still seemingly at loose ends, Young then went largely quiet. He ended the '90s ensconced once more with his old pals in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Young's next solo project didn't arrive until 2000. He didn't record another full length album with Crazy Horse until 2003's Greendale.
"Some shine, some don't, but the ones that don't shine are just as cool," Young mused in a 1998 interview with USA Today. "As you go through life, you've got to see the valleys as well as the peaks. You appreciate your good stuff because of the other stuff."