Rockin' in the Free World / Crime in the City (Sixty to Zero Part I) / Don't Cry / Hangin' on a Limb / Eldorado / The Ways of Love / Someday / On Broadway / Wrecking Ball / No More / Too Far Gone / Rockin' in the Free World
by Jeff Dove
Freedom is Neil Young's Odds and Sods. His return to Reprise, with This Note's for You, found him still in his "odd" period, but this second return effort for The Chairman of the Board's label put him back on friendly ground with old-style fans and radio programmers alike. This isn't to say that Freedom is an easy album to evaluate, in the fashion of something like Ragged Glory. This collection is in fact quite eclectic, and while that is a trait that we expect from Neil from album to album, it is never found within the boundaries of any other single release quite to the extent that it is here. Freedom seems to be culled from several sources. A careful listening, and perusal of the liner notes, places the tracks into a few sort of fuzzy categories. "Rockin' in the Free World," which opens and closes the album in different versions, recalls Rust Never Sleeps. The parallel goes beyond the similar tactic, used in "Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue) / My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Black)," but the styles of the two recordings on Freedom match Rust Never Sleep's live acoustic A-side and Crazy Horse-raging B-side. As with "Hey Hey...," and for that matter as with "Tonight's the Night" on the album of the same name, the two versions have some lyrical differences. The opening version of "Rockin' in the Free World" is a live solo acoustic version from a Jones Beach, Long Island, NY show, while the closer is an electric ripper that is right in there with the best of the Horse. The acoustic "Rockin'" can be grouped with "Hangin' on a Limb," another solo number, this time done in the studio with the vocal backing of Linda Rondstadt. The rocking "Rockin'" falls in with another pair of tunes recorded in Neil's Barn studio, "No More" and "Crime in the City." These are all up-tempo recordings that recall Neil's work with Crazy Horse. "Crime in the City's" aggressive acoustic guitar riffs are backed with subtle bass and drums, and "No More"'s guitar lead recalls that of "Cortez the Killer." While these are a little cleaner and more subtle than Crazy Horse tunes, their style was reminiscent enough of past glory to quickly get FM rotation, and gain the status of being amongst Neil's most liked and well known songs. Poncho Sampedro contributes to them all.
Although "Rockin' in the Free World" recalls Rust Never Sleeps, other Barn recordings, "The Ways of Love" and "Too Far Gone," could be off of American Stars 'n' Bars. Each has a country-rock feel, complete with Ben Keith's pedal steel guitar, and each works. In fact, "Hangin on a Limb" sounds like a Comes A Time recording, and "No More" would fit right in on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. The other distinct grouping of tracks are those recorded at New York's Hit Factory with the Eldorado line-up. "Don't Cry," "Eldorado," "On Broadway," and "Wrecking Ball" are done with a guitar-bass-drum trio, with the exception of a little acoustic work by Poncho on "Eldorado," and all but "Wrecking Ball" also turn up on the Eldorado CD EP. These three songs have a somewhat distinct sound from anything else in Neil's body of work. In "Don't Cry," he delivers a soulful vocal plea which is interrupted by crashing and dissonant guitar chords. The show tune cover "On Broadway," which could very well elicit a gasp upon first seeing it listed on the cover, actually succeeds by using a similar technique. "Eldorado" accompanies its tale of drug dealing south of the border with music with a Latin feel, carried by Neil's beautiful, crisp leads, and occasional Spanish guitar and castanet sounding interjections. Unfortunately "Wrecking Ball" doesn't work. It's a piano driven ballad that is a little too typical of such songs by lessor artists. It lacks the Neil "edge," musically and lyrically, which make songs such as "After the Gold Rush" and "Helpless" exciting and distinct from MOR dreck. On a record this varied you can expect some misfires; however, one track falls below, way below "Wrecking Ball," and that is "Someday." It is rehashed Bruce Springsteen at best, and like theme music to some lame Hollywood "formula" film at worst. With its tinkling piano, and tempo which mimics the Boss' "Thunder Road," you keep waiting for a Clarence Clemons-styled sax lead to interject itself, and towards the end it finally does. Come on Neil, this was recorded in 1989...and it's a Barn track also! Freedom represents the first step in Neil's commercial come back, and as such there are a number of good, and some great, cuts included. Its shifting style makes for a unique listening experience, and while fans have seen such shifts in style in the past on records from one side to the other, notably on Rust Never Sleeps and Hawks and Doves, be ready for changes from track to track on this one.