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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Forever Young # 32: "Hidden Treasure"

Song:  Truth Be Known
Album:  Mirror Ball
Released:  June, 1995

How is it that some songs have a way of hiding out for a while?  Early reviews don’t catch them, as the critical focus ends up being on other tunes off the same album be they a single, a hit, a controversy or a new twist.  It’s not until sometime later when more insight sinks in, that the song gets it’s just rewards. 

One explanation is too much of a good thing.  Musician can at times be victims of their own success.  Put together a string of great albums, and expectations begin to go off the charts.  Often, the tunes that slip under the radar are on albums that come at the tail end of a series of classics.  Good examples are songs off Bob Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’ (i.e. I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine, Dear Landlord) and ‘New Morning’ (The Man in Me), the Who’s ‘Who by Numbers’ (Slip Kid, Dreaming From the Waist), REM’s ‘Up’ (Lotus, Daysleeper) and the Stones ‘Exile on Main Street’ (pick’em) .  You could even make a case for the Beatles ‘Abbey Road’ (Oh! Darling, Because).  In all these examples, the album was overwhelmed by its predecessors at the time of release, but eventually climbed out from under their shadow, and in some cases rose above them. 

Another reason may be that certain songs and albums are a perfect barometer of the times, and it’s not until a historical perspective for those times kicks in that we can get a similar perspective for the music.  I say this as I think of these classic references above (for example, ‘Abbey Road does a pretty darn good job representing both the end of the Beatles and the end of the 60s), but what really intrigues me to this end is the Neil Young discography, particularly his mid-90s albums ‘Sleeps with Angels' (1994) and it’s follow up ‘Mirror Ball’ (1995).  In these albums I see a perfect convergence of factors that would allow a great song to come out of the gate with a low profile. 

‘Sleeps With Angels’ and ‘Mirror Ball’ came on the heels of 3 critically acclaimed Neil Young albums:  ‘Freedom’ (1989), ‘Ragged Glory’ (1990) and ‘Harvest Moon’ (1992).  The natural reaction for critics and many fans in these circumstances is to, at least temporarily, move on.  Most of us have an inclination to test new waters; see what else is out there.  It’s not as common to stay the course.  So when there’s a levelling off, or even a slight dip in quality, it’s not all that surprising that we can tend to miss something; some hidden treasure.

With all this in mind, Baby Boomers were finally facing the reality of their own mortality in the 90s and so searching for a legacy of sorts.  There was very little interest in understanding and observing ‘Generation X’.  But Neil Young was reaching out, connecting with both members of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, as well as other ‘X’ bands.  It was a fascinating union.  Young (and a few other 60s musicians, including Pete Townshend, who was connecting with Brit equivalents like Paul Weller) represented precisely what these bands were looking for.  Grunge brought something new and ultimately lasting to the table.  Where Punk lashed out at excess, phonies, and the abandonment of idealism, Grunge went further and tried to explain why.  Young was seen by this new rock and roll crowd as a kindred soul, and in turn an elder statesman.  He was real to them.  Neil Young in turn found companionship in a youth movement.  Who could ask for more?

Anyhow, several seminal songs of Young’s were victimized by this convergence of factors.  First there was Change Your Mind off Neil Young’s 1994’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’, which I wrote about 6 years ago (see GMVW # 32, Oct, 2008).  At the time of release it barely caught a blip on the radar, but it has gained traction over the ensuing decades, and I predict that it will one day be one of the cornerstones of Young’s legacy.   The second victim from my point of view is Truth Be Known off ‘Mirror Ball’, this week’s Forever Young entry.  For anyone who loves ‘Maximum Rhythm and Blues’ this song is for you.  Oh, to see it live.

Truth Be Known ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7b6kmrOx08 ) is an indictment of leaving your roots behind; forgetting what got you to where you are.  Here are the opening lyrics:

Saw your friend working in this hotel
Says he used to know you when
And your dreams lucky as they seemed
They all turned their back on him
Truth be known

Wow!  There’s no beating around the bush here, and that’s what the Grunge movement was all about.  Pearl Jam does a masterful job backing Neil Young in this song.  I love Jeff Ament’s bass playing: Solid, steady, and melodic.  Neil Young’s vocals are very impressive.  The high-pitched backing vocals are equally so.  Altogether, there is a steady driving force that propels the song forward.  If this were a Crazy Horse song, it would have probably been twice as long.  But Pearl Jam works with Young to drive the concept home within normal timespan for a rock song (4:39). 

Neil Young is very careful with his lyrics in Truth Be Known.  One line where this stands out is in that opening salvo; “And your dreams lucky as they seemed”.  It’s the use of the words ‘lucky’ and ‘seemed’ that catches me here.  Whoever Young is singing about (this could even be himself) believes there was a bit of luck involved in their success, which is a noble and humble trait. Use of the word ‘seemed’ however, throws a crowbar into the picture.  It implies that there really was not success, because in the process, there was abandonment, and you simply can’t have one without the other. 

The middle lyrics appear to be about the victimized friend and the mistakes he/she has made; pretty straightforward, but nonetheless masterful that Young and crew would scope this angle out.  The closing lyrics go back to the self-centered fool who has moved on:

When the fire that once was your friend
Burns your fingers to the bone
And your song meets a sudden end
Echoing through right and wrong
Truth be known

The insinuation here is that creativity withers on the vine when a wrong has occurred.  Not that I’m an expert with Grunge, but I have a sense that this type of emphasis is at the heart of that genera, which puts it solidly in the camp of masterful, innovative rock and roll.  This is because at its core, the rock music I have had a life-long fascination with is always searching for truth in one form or another.  It may deviate.  It may self-incriminate.  It may even implode on itself on occasion. 

But if it continues searching, I’m all ears.

Pete

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