Prior to its release, Greendale received more attention than any Neil Young album in years, but it wasn't positive. Young hauled out his concept album -- about an extended family in a small town called Greendale, and how they're torn apart by a murder -- to unsuspecting audiences, who by and large were not happy about spending anywhere from 55 to 85 dollars to hear a dense convoluted song cycle, complete with rambling narrative from Young, for the first hour of the show and not hearing many hits in the remainder of the set. Early in the summer of 2003, there was a brief blast of stories about this quasi-scandal, setting the stage for the late-summer release of the album: it got Young some needed press, and announced that unlike his last several albums, Young was actually trying this time around. Frankly, he needed a change. Ever since 1994's Sleeps With Angels -- or, if you're less charitable, 1990's Ragged Glory -- he had been drifting, playing with different groups, never quite mustering up enough energy to assemble a consistent set of songs whenever he headed into the studio. Here, the story and the setting give Young a hook for the record, a common theme that he can rally around, and the album benefits so much from that focus that it doesn't really matter that the story is convoluted beyond comprehension; the plot matters so much that it winds up not mattering at all. Close attention and repeated listens offer few rewards to the careful listener, because Young doesn't really say much of anything here, no matter how elaborately he says it. Learning more about the narrative -- whether it's through the simultaneously released DVD of the Young-directed film Greendale, hearing his rambling on-stage between-song narratives, or reading apparent transcriptions of these ramblings in the liner notes -- illuminates the story slightly, even as declarations like "When I was writing this I had no idea what I was doing, so I was just as surprised as you are" emphasize the suspicion that there's not much meaning in the whole enterprise.
All this doesn't really matter because Greendale works as a record -- it ebbs and flows and it holds together, playing as a unified whole on a level he hasn't approached since Ragged Glory. As Young says in the liner notes, these are things "you can't tell by listening to the songs, you have to listen to the instrumentals to get this," and while that is meant to apply to one of the many Crazy Horse-fueled meandering improvs, it really applies to the album as a whole since Greendale connects in its overall picture, not the details. Sometimes, such as the quietly eerie and affecting "Bandit," the songs stand apart from the concept, but usually the lyrics are too devoted to his winding narrative to be their own entities. Then again, Greendale was designed to be an interconnected song cycle, and if the narrative neither works nor signifies much, it nevertheless kept Young focused on the construction of the album, whether it's giving the songs memorable hooks or finding ways to make the signature ramshackle vibe of Crazy Horse sound both fresh and appropriate for this tale. It all adds up to a very good record -- one that is interesting, and one that satisfies musically. It may not be a latter-day masterpiece on the level of Dylan's Love and Theft, but it most surely is a comeback for an artist who seemed permanently adrift at sea.