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Friday, January 25, 2008

Neil Young - Trans

posted by on January 25 at 11:49 AM

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Back in September Eric wrote a short post regarding Neil Young’s 1982 album, Trans.

In 1982 Neil had signed a new deal with Geffen Records. In the past five years Young had released 3 albums of new material (including the great Comes A Time) and 2 live LPs. For some reason, Neil decided to forego the classic singer/songwriter thing and the hard rock thing, and turned to technology for his first album on his new label.

Trans is a mind fuck. Ecstatic, erratic, eclectic, prescient, creative and soulful. Trans manages to hold on to Young’s voice as one of the great songwriters, while completely obfuscating it under layers of vocoders, synthetic voice modulators and rigid sequential rhythms.

Kraftwerk had released Trans Europe Express, Man Machine and Computer World all in the last five years as well, and it is clear the impact both their ideas and music had upon the blueprint of this albums creation. While there are no extensive production credits on the album, it’s impossible to think that the drumming on the six highly produced electronic tracks is anything but sequenced, a la “Trans Europe Express”. And the heavy use of vocoder, more often found in euro-disco of the time, in this vein, with such futuristic, sometimes misanthropic lyrics seems directly descended from Man Machine.

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Lyrically, the album, unlike Kraftwerk, tended towards Young’s west coast songwriter style. Only this time dealing much more specifically with problems of love and life in the future. On “Computer Age” Young pleads with us to recognize him as human in an increasingly computer connected age, realising he’s technically talking more about reaching out to/from synthetic life-forms, the track, predating the internet by a decade, is incredibly perceptive about the future.

I need you

To let me know there’s a heartbeat.

Let it pound and pound.

And I’ll be flying like a free bird.

The track “Computer Cowboy” also seems canny in its description of future farmers.

Well his cattle each have numbers,

And they all eat in a line,

When he turns the floodlights on each night

Of course the herd looks perfect.

Ride along computer cowboy

To the city just in time

To bring another system down

And leave your alias behind.

It could be about cloning, genetic modification, corporate farming. It just seems so intensely clairvoyant.

Remarkably, the album, while doing quite well by industry standards - #17 on the albums charts, produced no hit singles; the rock-a-billy opener “Little Thing Called Love” placed at 71, but the follow up, “Sample And Hold”, didn’t even leave a trace. In fact, Young was sued by Geffen over the unrepresentative quality of this album and it’s followup, Everybody’s Rockin’.

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Speculation abounds that the albums creation came about when Young discovered that his son, Ben, who was born with severe Cerebral Palsy and is mute, reacted positively when Young used Vocoder or a Talk Box to communicate with him. I honestly don’t know if that is truth or rumour. If it’s true it makes for a compelling story within the language of the track, “Sample And Hold”.

I need a unit to sample and hold

But not the angry one

…Not the lonely one

A new design

Perfection in every detail

Fabrication from the curl of the hair

To the tip of the nail

Because our units never fail

We know you’ll be happy.

And the love shown his son in the track “Transformer Man” (which in its Unplugged guise would become a radio hit in 1993) is as sweet as a love song to a child can possibly be, even when sung by a robot.

Sooner or later you’ll have to see/learn

The cause and effect.

So many things still left to do

But we havenn’t made it yet

Every morning when I look in your eyes

I feel electrified by you.

The real mystery surrounding Trans is the fact that after 25 years, the album has never been repressed or released on CD in the United States. New and used copies of the import CD sell in the $30 range, while the Japanese import with the Obi strip prices out used at $250. The vinyl sells for around $15 in good condition.

While many fans labeled this album as “strange” or “baffling” at the time, critics fell for it. Robert Christgau gave it an A- and it recieved four stars from Rolling Stone. The album is generally thought of now as a treasure of it’s time and prophetic in its view of the future.

I believe it to be one of the most singular and fantastic full-album listens in my collection. Don’t pass on this one if you see it in a used vinyl store. It’s a masterpiece of a future time and place, enjoyed yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Samples can be found here.

RSS icon Comments

1

There are great coke albums, great weed albums, and great psychedelic albums, but Trans is the best nitrous album of all time.

Posted by MattyDread | January 25, 2008 11:55 AM
2

Neil Young is a Canadian Icon. I totally missed this album when I was growing up listening to him on the radio (yikes, my age is showing). I remember seeing Young perform live in Toronto during the Gulf War and he gave an amazing "peace" encore that remains in my top 10 concert moments. Terry, thanks for reminding me of it and introducing me to a side of Young that I didn't know.

Posted by Amy | January 25, 2008 7:00 PM
3

Remember Neil's affiliation with Devo around this time. See youtube for videoclips from his movie Human Highway, especially with booji boy singing "hey hey my my"

Posted by fishface | January 25, 2008 7:08 PM

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