Since Prairie Wind is a return to the soft, lush country-rock sound of Harvest; since Neil Young suffered a brain aneurysm during its recording; since it finds the singer/songwriter reflecting on life and family in the wake of his father's death; and since it's his most cohesive album in a decade, it would seem that all these factors add up to a latter-day masterpiece for Young, but that's not quite the case. Prairie Wind manages to be less than the sum of its parts and the problem isn't a lack of good songs (although it does have a few more clunkers than it should) or a botched concept. Young's decision to revive the country-rock that brought him his greatest popularity never feels like a cynical move -- the music is too warm, comfortable, and friendly to feel like anything but Neil playing to his strengths. However, since he cut this in Nashville with a bunch of studio pros including legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham, it feels just a tad slicker than perhaps it should, since the smooth sound inadvertently highlights the sentimentality of the project. It's hard to begrudge Young if he wants to indulge in rose-colored memories -- a brush with death coupled with a loss of a parent tends to bring out sentimentality -- but such backward-gazing songs as "Far from Home" feel just a hair too close to trite, and the easy-rolling nature of the record doesn't lend them much gravity. There a few other songs that tend toward too close to the simplistic, whether it's the specific invocations of 9/11 and Chris Rock on "No Wonder" or the supremely silly Elvis salute "He Was the King," which are just enough to undermine the flow of the album, even if they fit into the general autumnal, reflective mood of the record. But since they do fit the overall feel of the album, and since they're better, even with their flaws, than the best songs on, say, Silver & Gold or Broken Arrow or Are You Passionate?, they help elevate the whole of Prairie Wind, particularly because there are some genuinely strong Young songs here: the moody opener "The Painter," the gently sighing "Fallin' off the Face of the Earth," the ethereal "It's a Dream," the sweet, laid-back "Here for Your," the understated "This Old Guitar" (there's also the sweeping "When God Made Me," recorded complete with a gospel chorus, one that will either strike a listener as moving or maudlin -- a latter-day "A Man Needs a Maid," only not as strong). This set of songs does indeed make Prairie Wind a better album than anything Young has released in the past decade, which means that it's easy to overrate it. For despite all of its strengths, neither the recording nor the songs are as memorable or as fully realized as his late-'80s/early-'90s comeback records -- Freedom, Ragged Glory, and Harvest Moon -- let alone his classic '70s work. Nevertheless, it's the closest Young has come to making a record that could hold its own with those albums in well over a decade, which means it's worthwhile even if it's never quite as great as it seems like it could have been.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine