Neil Young is easily the most vital rock star of his generation, but that doesn't mean he can't fall into a rut. Young continues to take chances with his albums—writing ambitious multi-song narratives, hiring veteran session men and fledgling alt-rockers, turning records into movies, and so on—but his style remains stuck in the same dichotomous mode it's been in since 1970: He either plays loud and droning, or soft and melodic. Prairie Wind falls into the latter camp, which is good news for Young fans, since his gifts have mellowed greatly over the last decade. The noisy Young tends to be kind of dull these days, while the gentle Young creates beautiful things almost in spite of himself.
Case in point: Prairie Wind's opening song, "The Painter." It's a fairly conventional, semi-corny character sketch about a lady artist following her dreams, even as they lead her away from her loved ones. If Young's pre-album interviews can be believed, this song—like a lot of the songs on Prairie Wind—is about his awareness of his own mortality. Young had surgery to remove a brain aneurysm during the writing and recording of this disc, and that incident is reflected in the mood of the music, which sounds simultaneously autumnal and climactic.
But what really matters is that "The Painter" is a lovely little song, carried by relaxed acoustic picking and a doleful slide guitar floating through the background. Prairie Wind is full of groaner lyrics about environmental irresponsibility, 9/11, family ties, and Elvis Presley ("The last time I saw Elvis, he was shootin' at a color TV"), but even lilting instrumentation strengthens even the weakest lines. Young's tendency toward sprawl pushes some of these tracks past the six-minute mark, but these aren't the thudding jams that have weighed down much of his recent Crazy Horse material. These songs are more unhurried than stunted. And when Young tightens up some, as on the romantic country ballad "Here For You" and the hushed "This Old Guitar," the muted browns that dominate the album deepen into rich, spectacular oranges and reds.