Neil Young - Bandit (solo acoustic) 

I woke up on the New Year with this song — particularly the chorus, “someday you’ll find everything you’re looking for” — stuck in my head. It wasn’t because I’m “lost” or that I haven’t found what I’m “looking for” (although I guess there’s some of that, as I am a human being and unrest is my natural state) but because the message itself is one that’s important for a new year. Although you should practice appreciation for what you have, there’s something hopeful in believing that this is the year in which you’ll find what makes you happiest and most content in the world; that you’ll find and hold on to what you love.

Neil sings the song with his customary world-weary empathy, like he’s gotten old and still hasn’t found that heart of gold, but he’s not done looking — and neither should you. He tuned his guitar in an unusual way, with the top string completely slack and coarsely vibrating throughout the track. This strange technique reinforces the song’s message about feeling out of tune and not belonging; the string is not quite in harmony with anything else, just like the song’s protagonist. Neil also sings — talks, really — in a watery whisper that lets his mouth go as slack as the guitar string. It’s only when he’s emboldened in the chorus that he takes his voice up to the firm, familiar register.

Neil gets a fair amount of gentle grief for his lyrics. In reviews for his latest album, Psychedelic Pill, most everyone mentioned the line “gonna get me a hip-hop haircut.” Fair enough; it’s a memorable line. Even though we enjoy how little of a shit Neil sometimes gives — he’s everyone’s occasionally eccentric uncle, and that’s why we love him — we also overlook some of the poetry in his lyrics in favor of the more “Neil being Neil” lines. There are plenty of poignant touches in “Bandit,” as he sketches this portrait of a man who’s lived from one scam to the next and is reaching the end of the line. Neil’s very familiar with these guys, and depicts this one’s life with lines like “Wrappin’ up dope in a paper bag, talkin’ to yourself, takin’ a drag,” while addressing him directly with concerns such as, “What are you workin’ for? One more big score? What are you tryin’ to prove?” I particularly like the subtle playfulness and the distinctly Californian details of the passage, “You didn’t bet on the Dodgers / To beat the Giants/ Then David came up.”

“Bandit” was on Neil’s 2003 album, Greendale, which pointedly came out at the height of paranoia during the Bush Jr. presidency. With this project, Neil invented an entire town (called Greendale) to host some of his favorite overarching themes — environmentalism, tradition versus change, the dreams of the 1960s, the complex and combative relationship between people, corporations, government, and media — and then told a story set in that town using an interactive website, a (surprisingly good) movie, an album with Crazy Horse, and a live show with sets and actors that played more like a Broadway musical than a rock concert. I caught this tour in upstate New York and found it to be one of the most engaging live performances I’ve ever seen. It was impressively realized and scrappily executed, but the most powerful moment was when he stripped away all the pageantry and played “Bandit” on an acoustic guitar.

This past year, I found myself wondering if Mitt Romney won the presidency, whether or not we’d hear music like Greendale — or, to be more specific, return to the familiar dread of the climate that spawned Greendale. The Bush administration didn’t spark as much protest music as one would think, given the anger and hopelessness that a lot of people felt and the fact that so many musicians are liberal, but it clearly inspired Neil to create some of his most ambitious work. To hear this album in 2012 or 2013 is to remember the way many of us felt then, and to reflect on how close we came to the country turning the clock back to that exact same place. But then, things aren’t great right now. I don’t need to run down the list of reasons why. But songs like “Bandit,” and the comforting presence of Neil Young, help give hope that we’ll find at least some of the things we’re looking for. 

— Robert Ker