Neil Young’s Semi-Precious mettle

Sometimes I wonder what could possibly motivate Neil Young’s association with Crosby, Stills & Nash. Even if you believe the dubious notion that those three tubs of lard (even Graham Nash is getting round in the middle these days) had anything worthwhile to offer past 1968, it’s tough to fathom why Mr. Young has recently chosen to record and tour with them. Together and separately, C,S&N consistently proffer narcissism and self-satisfaction in the name of never-say-die ’60’s idealism. To say nothing of the fact that these days their vaunted harmonies are now literally painful to hear.

Nothing like that can be said of Mr. Young. Even if 1996’s Broken Arrow was not terribly inspired, the last decade never found the singer-songwriter less than invigorated. With each release, he refined home truths and values in his songwriting.

Whether he is summoning a big, bad leviathan of guitar feedback or crafting songs of perfect plain-spoken parable, Mr. Young is a natural. It’s been said before about him, but Silver & Gold makes it worth repeating: Mr. Young’s complacency can sound as rewarding as his fearless experimentalism.

Silver & Gold is Mr. Young’s first release since 1997, not counting Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s recent Looking Forward , to which he siphoned off four songs intended for his solo album.

The 10-song CD is very much in the homespun, acoustic vein of 1992’s Harvest Moon and 1978’s Comes A Time . Thematically, it parallels “Long May You Run” by stressing loyalty throughout. It’s not an unqualified late-period masterpiece. But maybe it’s all right that it isn’t, because masterpieces are rarely reassuring, and who wants to live without reassurance?

Mr. Young intended to record Silver & Gold all by himself, and, indeed, two tracks feature just him and his guitar. But he decided that other musicians would be necessary. So he called in Memphis keyboardist Spooner Oldham (who banged out the electric piano signature of Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man [The Way I Loved You]”), Booker T & the MGs bassist Donald (Duck) Dunn, longtime steel guitarist-producer Ben Keith, and drummers Oscar Butterworth and Jim Keltner (a player who has never failed to craft deeply appropriate beats on demand for more than three decades).

These sidemen provide accompaniment that seems spectral and firm at once. You could even imagine Mr. Young welcoming the musicians into the studio with the CD’s first track, “Good To See You,” although the song is directed at a lover. The sheer good-naturedness of the tune distracts from its slightness. The same goes for “Daddy Went Walkin,”a charming rustic fable, and “Distant Camera.”

The heart of Silver & Gold is “Red Sun.” A hymn in waltz time, it’s the most transforming, affecting song he’s written since 1994’s “Western Hero” or “Philadelphia.” Emmylou Harris joins Mr. Young on the track, adding a startlingly pure top harmony that mirrors his own earthbound tenor. “And the dreams that you’re havin’/they won’t let you down/ If you just follow on/’cause you know where you’re bound,” the duo sings. Time stops with “Red Sun.” It’s as if Mr. Young has excavated a primordial tune that has always existed.

Two songs get close to the wonder of “Red Sun”: the stately “Horseshoe Man,” where two lovers search for redemption from a kind of cowboy messiah, and “Razor Love,” a marvelous meditation on overwhelming love.

The oddest song is the jaunty “Buffalo Springfield Again,” which addresses Mr. Young’s first successful band, and Stephen Stills’ last good one. “Used to play in a rock and roll band/ but they broke up,” Mr. Young sings. Could the distancing “they” be a hint that the rest of the song’s warm-and-fuzzy sentiments toward Springfield hide festering resentments? Maybe. But the song indicates that camaraderie is paramount to Mr. Young, which may also answer why he continues to work with his ghastly fellow travelers C,S&N.

Enduring love, as ever, seems to be on Mr. Young’s mind. I can’t imagine that Pegi Young, his wife and muse, must ever get inured to having such tender songs written about her. “Our kind of love never seems to get old/It’s better than silver and gold,” he coos on the title cut.

The closing “Without Rings” gravely suggests that faithfulness lasts after the death of a lover: “I know that you can fly/’Cause I’m on the ground without you.” The tune also contains the one line on Silver & Gold that couldn’t have been written 50 years ago: “My software’s not compatible with you.” Shades of Trans , his bizarre 1983 Kraftwerk homage? Perhaps, but it doesn’t take away from the song’s age-old ache.

This lovely, lilting record is not a bold step forward for Mr. Young, but he’s had more of those than most worthwhile songwriters his age. And unlike sad-sack songsters like Smog and Will Oldham, nobody can say Neil Young sounds like anyone else. The old hippie therefore has the right to simply take stock. When he does, Mr. Young has more insight to offer than any of his fat and happy contemporaries. After listening to Silver & Gold you may not understand any better Mr. Young’s reheated affiliation with Crosby, Stills & Nash, but you’ll know in a second why they are hanging with him.