The quarter-century-old Broken Arrow (released 7/2/96) is one of Neil Young’s more unheralded releases with Crazy Horse and deservedly so. Notwithstanding the significance of its title and the milestone it represents in the longstanding creative working relationship between the Canadian rock icon and his motley crew of accompanists, it lacks the clear spark of inspiration behind the album that immediately preceded it, 1994’s Sleeps With Angels (a eulogy for Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain).
A comedown too from the more intense and substantial likes of Young’s work the following year with Pearl Jam, Mirror Ball, this tenth collaboration between Young and The Horse takes its name not only from a piece of Native American lore (an ethnic persona Young cultivated early in his career), but also one of the man’s most famous recordings for Buffalo Springfield, the band he co-founded with Stephen Stills some thirty-years prior. Neil’s ranch in the California redwoods carries a similar moniker, thus adding to the mystique, but not escalating the artistic value of this LP.
The lavish production piece from the aforementioned legendary group’s sophomore album, Again, was ironically symbolic of the band’s fragmentation. For its part, this record is a composite of electric and acoustic tracks combined with a single live recording, the sum effect of which hardly carries the impact of an album similarly cobbled together from a variety of sources, Tonight’s The Night. Still, even for those who dote on the high-decibel cacophony of this quartet, Broken Arrow may remain simply the means to the end of prefacing a superior release from the very next year, the live Year of the Horse (ostensibly the soundtrack album for filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s documentary on the group).
As “Big Time” suggests, there is little enduring original material here. The first of three extended tracks, it so overflows with distortion and feedback that Young’s own voice sounds like a spectral presence in the mix. His singing does become somewhat entrancing as it hovers over the cacophonous sonics on the more compact two-minutes plus of “Changing Highways.” But on that aforementioned double album (featuring lesser-known material like “When You Dance” compared to its stage predecessor Weld), “Scattered” and “Slip Away” sound better in concert, where the band imparts an ever-so-slight lilt in place of the sluggish feel that arose in the studio sessions.
The murky audio ambiance of the 1997 live album suits its hypnotic, feedback-drenched distortion. But that’s hardly the case with this record’s concluding track, Jimmy Reed’s “Baby What You Want Me to Do:” its decidedly amateur audio quality belies recording by Neil’s own team. Still, because the blues icon’s tune was (perhaps not coincidentally) also proffered as show closer by later lineups of the Byrds (contemporaries of the Springfield), it is less of a non-sequitur here than the solo acoustic cut preceding it. “Music Arcade” constitutes respite from the high volume that surrounds it, the relaxed, dream-like quality of its reverie reaffirming the apparent lack of driving motivation behind this project. In hindsight, Broken Arrow seems like the closest Neil Young’s ever come to the mere fulfillment of a contractual obligation (this side of his Geffen Records years of the Eighties of course).
As a result, while this twenty-five-year-old album does cement the continuity in Neil Young’s oeuvre (and may well engross the listener and/or fan who relishes such sturm und drang), it’s hardly a pillar of creativity, but rather more akin one of the novelties in this great iconoclast’s discography, like 1988’s horn-laden experiment in r&b, This Note’s For You.