Neil Young sampled chickens, bees and bears on his strangest album yet

Neil Young sampled chickens, bees and bears on his strangest album yet

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

Neil Young is a preachy Planeteer. He interrupts his live gigs with digressions about Alberta’s oil sands, Keystone XL and organic Ontario cherries. He has written entire albums about Monsanto, environmentalism and his hybrid Lincoln convertible. And it was in that car, as he was driving down Pacific Coast Highway, that he dreamed up the idea for his most earnest, eco-obsessive record yet: Earth, a live album of protest songs from his 2015 tour, augmented by the sounds of real animals.

To help him hunt down a zoo’s worth of wildlife, Young enlisted his long-time producer John Hanlon. They spent the first couple of months of 2016 lugging a two-track recorder around southern California, shoving a microphone in front of anything that might make a noise and ignoring mystified stares from onlookers. They captured the hum of crickets south of San Francisco, recorded frog croaks by Zuma Beach, and visited a ranch where a brave crew member donned a bee keeper’s suit and got uncomfortably close to a hive. Crows cawing, horses whinnying, bats chirping—once they’d scavenged enough audio, the pair hunkered down in their studio (they often operate out of a refurbished tour bus formerly used by Bob Dylan) and went to work on the album.

The beastly collaborators are a gimmicky notion, but alongside Young’s granola jeremiads, they work. At the end of the rootsy “My Country Home,” a chorus of gobbling chickens playfully substitutes for an applauding crowd. On the acoustic ballad “Wolf Moon” (above), a distant loon’s call is eerie and poignant. And, in the dying moments of “People Want to Hear About Love,” a bear growls furiously. That last recording, Hanlon confesses, is re-sampled. Not even Neil Young could convince him to face a grizzly.

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