Crazy Horse have always brought out the best in Neil Young.

His previous album with them, 2012's Psychedelic Pill, remains one of the few bright spots of the veteran singer and songwriter's otherwise not-so-great past decade. And their collaborations -- dating all the way back to 1969's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and continuing through classics like Rust Never Sleeps (1979) and Ragged Glory (1990) -- are top-ranked highlights of an already stellar career.

Recent records with Promise of the Real attempted to capture that spark-in-a-powder-keg thing Crazy Horse bring to Young, but they sounded like mere imitations beneath all the volume and fuzz. Now the real thing is back.

Colorado, the 12th collaboration between Young and Crazy Horse, continues their tradition of recording live, preserving the warts and blemishes that occur when a bunch of living, breathing human beings get together to make music. This has always made for some of Young's most honest records, and that's no different on Colorado. And while it is his best album since Psychedelic Pill, it's more Greendale than Zuma.

That's not to say it isn't, like most Young-Crazy Horse records, loud, impassioned and spontaneous-sounding. It's all that, plus brimming with the ecological urgency that has marked the bulk of Young's '10s recordings. His environmental advocacy goes back to the '60s, but at 73 he's found new rage buried in his bones that occasionally seems like the core reason he keeps making music these days. (See 2015's The Monsanto Years, basically an album-length hate letter to the agrochemical corporation.)

There's also some pointed songs reflecting the current political climate. "There's a rainbow of colors in the old U.S.A.," he sings in one of Colorado's best songs, "Rainbow of Colors." "No one's gonna whitewash those colors away." And in "Shut It Down" he shouts over ragged guitars, "All around the planet, there's a blindness that just can't see" -- a line that has as much to do with climate-change denial as it does with general shifts to the right happening all over the world.

It all unfolds in a flurry of electric guitars and distortion, with a few scaled-back detours along the way. Nils Lofgren returns to a Young studio record for the first time since 1982's Trans, filling in for longtime guitarist Frank "Poncho" Sampedro, and adding the appropriate musical lift and heft that often distinguishes Young's Crazy Horse albums from his other works. Still, the leader is front and center here, once again calling the shots as he's done for more than five decades.

So, when Colorado strays -- like on the meandering 13-and-a-half-minute "She Showed Me Love" or the piano ballad "Eternity" -- it's Young who takes the hits. Not so coincidentally, these are two of the album's love songs, which try to bring a balance to the political and environmental leanings but end up shifting the overall focus to another, less-interesting place instead. Young and Crazy Horse are at their best when they become unhinged.

Or at least stick to expectations, like they do on "Think of Me," "Milky Way" and "Rainbow of Colors," all of which are pulled from the tattered playbook they've been using for years. And that's the thing with Crazy Horse: Young returns to them periodically because they send him back into his guitar-padded comfort zone whenever he begins to stray a little too far from his center and strengths. By no means do their records together play it safe or easy; some of Young's most risk-taking, without-a-net works are his Crazy Horse collaborations.

Colorado doesn't go that far. It's a relatively conventional album as far as these double-credited records go, but it's a familiar-sounding one that's welcomed after the past several years of quickly forgotten LPs. "Thanks for making all this happen again/We're gonna do it just like we did back then," Young sings on the record's quiet, mostly acoustic closer, "I Do." It's an acknowledgement of sorts to the returning band, to fans who've stuck around through all the ups and downs and even to his new wife. None of this exactly qualifies as a rebirth, but it's nice to have him back in a place where it all sounds so natural.

 

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