Neil Young and the Poetics of Energy

By Harris, Paul | Notes, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Neil Young and the Poetics of Energy


Harris, Paul, Notes


Neil Young and the Poetics of Energy. By William Echard. (Musical Meaning and Interpretation.) (Profiles in Popular Music.) BIoomington: Indiana University Press, 2005. [vii, 260 p. ISBN 0-253-34581-2. $50.] Index, bibliography.

William Echard's first monograph develops material from his dissertation. His is one of several recent works containing the word "poetics" in the title (for example, Albin Zak, The Poetics of Rock [Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001]; and Adam Krims, Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001]). These works tend to use the word in the sense of poeisis. or creation, but often with elements of double meaning, so that "the core of the concept is aesthetic, signaling an interest in the interface between compositional choices . . . and broader value systems" (p. 6). Echard, aligning himself with Krims in particular, states that an interest in poetics signals three things: 1) analytic specificity about sonic detail is necessary; 2) such analysis must be informed by the social history of the music, and 3) "formal analysis can be a means to look for mechanisms which enable and constrain the affective energies and aesthetic priorities invested in the music" (p. 6). Echard describes his interpretive agenda as primarily semiotic despite the lack of semiotic terminology.

One hindrance to appreciating or understanding Neil Young and his music is his enormous output spanning approximately forty years, with his solo works (including those recorded with Crazy Horse) comprising nearly forty albums, in addition to collaborations with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, and Nash. A primary concern of the book is Young's changeable identity which paradoxically becomes one of the primary indicators of his identity: "His changeability, since it has been a constant and since it is of a kind frequently valorized in the rock culture of the 1960s and 1970s, does much to stabilize his identity" (p. 1). This kind of paradoxical construction abounds in the book. For example, Echard discusses at length how Young's ambivalence toward being a rock icon is "a kind of authenticity [that] reinforces the same ideologies it questions" (p. 83). Another central concern is "to fine tune existing methods of describing the energetic and affective dimensions of musical meaning, again because notions of emotional commitment and intensity are key themes in Neil Young reception" (p. 2).

Because Young has expressed a desire not to be pinned down by interpreters, this is "less a book about Neil Young than one which tries to respond to him" (p. 2, emphasis in the original). As such, one should not approach this as a "life and works" source. Echard seeks to strike a balance between fandom and academe, permitting each state to influence the other, agreeing with Richard Middleton that the "scholarfan is in a unique position to bridge discourses" (p. 3). Echard warns that this stance results in a book, at times, lacking in academic rigor. In fact, the far greater risk is that readers lacking a substantial background in cultural studies may bog down in the extremely technical theorizing comprising much of the book.

Echard synthesizes four main sources: 1) academic literature; 2) major monographs on Neil Young; 3) the Internet "Rust" list (which derives its name from Young's recurring references to rust, beginning with his album Rust Never Sleeps [1979]), and 4) Echard's own analyses of Young's work. For this last category, the albums are not treated as objects of study, but rather as "discursive spheres to be evoked and juxtaposed to build up a multifaceted picture of Neil Young's work" (p. 4).

Echard explains the "poetics of energy" as arising from metaphorical conceptualizations of energy and space, Young's "expressive intensity," theories of musical meaning and gesture, and the many metaphors in Young reception suggesting energy as a central concept, including restlessness, chaos, and contrast between aggressive and introspective moods. …

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