By 1995, Neil Young had spent the past three decades evolving from innocent young folkie, to nihilistic grunge-pioneering Les Paul slinger, to experimental weirdo, to weathered elder-statesman, and then back and forth over and over again. He earned respect through his genuine, rustic songwriting (whether acoustic or electric), and through relentless refusal of genre crafted an enduring persona of a fierce individualist; eager to experiment and embrace new, of-the-times sounds, and generally unwilling to give a shit. As loud, noisy, “alternative rock” exploded in popularity, his work with Crazy Horse earned him the title of Godfather of Grunge, and got him quoted in Kurt Cobain’s suicide note. All of these factors seemed to lead to an inevitable collaboration with then-upstarts Pearl Jam for 1995’s under appreciated album Mirror Ball.
Despite a generation gap (Neil is at least 20 years older than any member of Pearl Jam), the combination proved to be a match made in grunge heaven. While Crazy Horse had long been the perfect complement to Neil, a full-throttle mid-90s Pearl Jam’s intensity brought an updated type of energy and noise to Neil’s trademarked brand of muscley, fuzzed-out folk. There is a distinct lack of barn-burning rockers (for that look no further than the “supergroup”s incendiary 1993 MTV Music Awards performance of Rockin’ in the Free World), but the understatement only enhances the brooding introspection smoldering beneath Pearl Jam’s onslaught.
Mirror Ball is a scorcher from front to back, but the undeniable centerpiece is slow-burning epic I’m the Ocean. Inspired by a drive Neil took through the streets of Los Angeles during OJ Simpson’s murder trial, I’m the Ocean depicts a stream-of-conscious type succession of images and thoughts. Through vivid flashes of imagery we drift from scene to scene, to be acknowledged but never truly made sense of. Described by Neil as a “slice of confusion”, he spends the song’s verses ruminating on a number of things; from love had and loves lost, to his own misfit status, to the struggle of homeless veterans, to the all-consuming media. No answers are offered, and no questions are really asked, the world just continues to transpire with nothing to be done about it.
Even as a seven-plus minute song that is essentially the same beginning to end- one rhythm, one chord progression, and in a sense one long verse- I’m the Ocean never once feels boring. As it smolders its way through ideas and observations it seems to gain momentum solely through its poetry, building up towards... something. That something doesn’t come in the expected form of a grand catharsis or boiled-over rage, but rather through emotional transcendence. By the end of the song our narrator chooses to embrace his minuscule role in the inevitable flow of life, choosing not to fight against the chaos and confusion of the world, but exist among it all and let the experience wash over him. The simple declaration “I’m the ocean…” at the songs climax is not aggressive or dismissive, just accepting.
In the words of Neil Young himself, “There’s nothing you can do but hang in there and keep on going”.