Neil Young Hung Up on Me

Neil Young
Recording artist Neil Young poses for a portrait while promoting his upcoming album, "Earth," in Calabasas, California, on May 18. Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

The first step was: get ahold of a PonoPlayer.

“Neil is going to ask you if you've listened to the album on Pono,” I had been warned. I needed to have an answer. That answer needed to be yes.

Neil Young was preparing to release his bonkers new live album, Earth. I was preparing to interview Young, ostensibly about Earth, the album and (perhaps) the planet. And, just as urgently, I was preparing to listen to Earth on the format Young required of me: Pono, the extremely high-resolution, “no-compromise” portable music player he's been developing for half a decade.

The opportunity had fallen into my lap with the sudden shock of a surprise album drop. Would I like to interview Neil Young? Yes. Yes, I would like that. Despite Young's somewhat ornery reputation—one veteran journalist described him as “surly and monosyllabic” in conversation—I jumped at the chance for a brief phone chat with a longtime hero. I've loved Young since I was old enough to spell “Cortez.” Some of my earliest musical memories involve Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere blaring in my dad's Subaru wagon. I've happily paid money for albums as widely loathed as Fork in the Road and Everybody’s Rockin’. And in April of this year, I traveled to Seattle to give a Pop Conference presentation about the enduring influence of Young's unfairly disparaged 1982 electronic album Trans.

Since I don't own a PonoPlayer—the price tag is somewhere in the range of $399—Warner Bros. Records invited me to spend a few hours at its headquarters listening to Earth on a Pono device there. “Just so you know, it's 97 minutes long,” a rep warned me, in a voice you might use to talk about an invasive dental procedure. Instead, I wound up receiving a loaner PonoPlayer and high-resolution headphones in the mail from Young’s manager’s office.

Basking in my new luxury audio, I spent a few days listening to the album. It’s not bad! The performances (featuring Lukas Nelson’s band, Promise of the Real) are crisp and fuzzy in the right places, the track list full of surprises. Earth eschews the obvious hits in favor of lesser-played ’90s gems like “My Country Home” and “Western Hero.” The latter half is a bit bogged down by overlong protest songs from last year’s The Monsanto Years, railing against genetically modified organisms and “big business!” with the aid of overdubbed vocal treatments. Young’s in a political mood of late: If the Ragged Glory tracks don’t remind you of 1991’s fantastic live outing Weld, the war sound effects on “Big Box” will.

There’s an environmental thread running through the record, which manifests itself in cuts like “Mother Earth” and “After the Gold Rush”—songs Young describes as being “about living here on our planet together”—as well as prominent animal sounds that pop up on virtually every track. The effect is bizarre: The opening track fades into an aggressive swarm of bees, while 1974’s “Vampire Blues” is interrupted by a whinnying horse. Listening on Pono, the sound was disturbingly clear; it felt like farm animals were in the room with me, barking and yodeling.

Speaking of barking and yodeling, I had an interview coming up. It was set for late one Wednesday afternoon. I sat by my phone and waited. And waited some more. The appointed hour came and went. Young's publicist called to tell me they were running late. No problem. I was nervous. I was sweating bullets. I was fine.

I fiddled with the lengthy list of interview questions I'd prepared. I planned to begin by asking him about the new record. Then I’d shift to more career-spanning topics, like whether he had any regrets about ditching streaming services and how he felt about Trans's conflicted legacy and his thoughts on performing at the upcoming "Oldchella festival and whether he had actually heard of the nickname “Oldchella.” (Save that question for the end, my editor jokingly suggested, “in case he gets mad and hangs up.”)

Finally, after a nearly 45-minute wait, I was exchanging pleasantries with Neil Percival Young. “Hello! How are you?” “I'm fine. How are things going over at Newsweek?” Young spoke in a high, mild-mannered voice. I was surprised by how prominent his Canadian accent seemed over the phone.