There was a time when I’d play only the title track of Comes a Time, without listening to any of the other tracks. I had heard the entire album once through – just once – before I started this pattern, deliberately ignoring the temptation to listen to the rest of the album. For a temptation was what it was. I was supposed to be studying for exams and/or writing my dissertation and am one of those unfortunate souls who is unable to do much that is productive while listening to music. Simply put, music doesn’t remain ‘in the background’. Even the stereotypical soothing classical music – say one of Bach’s cantatas – get me singing along with everything, waving my hands in what I think is conductor-fashion and generally acting silly.

So, while putting on the song ‘Comes a Time’ takes only 3 minutes out of my work, putting on the album Comes a Time would take about 40 minutes. In my responsible mood, the choice was clear-cut. I’d lit on that particular song as my sample of choice because of the utterly striking chorus:

Oh, this old world keeps spinning round

It’s a wonder tall trees ain’t laying down.

It’s not just the words there. It’s the combination of the imagery and the falling melody line: Neil Young and Nicolette Larson’s harmonies really do describe a spiraling downward trajectory over the second half of each of those lines. Which makes me feel, for some reason, as if I’m surrounded by a circle of tall evergreens – pines, because the shape of their branches reminds me of the jagged harmonies – with the sunlight filtering down through the branches, while I’m standing in the centre and getting dizzy. Is there any ongoing scientific study of such combined effects of music and words on the brain? They feel like a new sense in operation.

Suffice it to say that Comes a Time (the album) is shot through with such beautiful imagery, especially relating to nature, which is especially complementary to the sweet, wistful acoustic love songs – folk tinged with country – that constitute the majority of this album. This must be a Canadian thing. It is a pet theory of mine that Canadian artists, growing up with such scenic beauty around them, can’t help but show it in their work. The last song on Comes a Time bears out this theory, too: it’s a cover of ‘Four Strong Winds’, a quintessential Canadian song written by folkies Ian and Silvia Tyson. Yet the words on this album aren’t dripping with gorgeousness in the way Ms. Mitchell’s sometimes are. They’re simple enough, but usually laced with what I’ve come to think of as Neil Young’s essential weirdness and a bit of wordplay, making them vividly memorable. Thus:

Comes a time

When you’re driftin’

Comes a time when you settle down

Comes a light

Feeling’s liftin’

Lift that baby right up off the ground.

Similarly, from ‘Lotta Love’, which is quite amusing:

So if you look in my direction

And we don’t see eye to eye

My heart needs protection

And so do I…

The gorgeousness is reserved for the arrangements. The opening track, ‘Goin’ Back’, exhibits what I think of as the absolute pinnacle of prettiness in popular music. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not loaded with the usual instruments that people nowadays seem to think are necessary to make a song pretty: orchestral strings, tinkling chimes, &c. Again, as with the best of Neil Young, it’s simple enough – a few acoustic guitars and feather-light percussion, plus a bit of harmony vocals – but conceals complexity and no little musicianship that become apparent on repeated listens. You start to discern the individual melodic lines of the guitars, weaving shimmering cant and descant, picked rapidly but with gentle clarity. Yet the guitars aren’t even the star attraction. Yes, they get their chance to shine, but there’s no soloing, and the main melody left to the vocals. Everything is… well-balanced. The whole comes up, truly, to something more than its parts.

Not unlike the song’s author, who on his best days gives equal importance to both the music and the words and therefore comes up with something wonderful. The decision to add a one-time, isolated, extended electric guitar riff about mid-way through the Crazy Horse collaboration ‘Look Out for My Love’ – a punchy, muscular, squelching, rum riff – was absolutely inspired.

Comes a Time isn’t consistent all the way through. There are two songs I don’t particularly care for, even though they do have merits, because they rather distract from the overall tone of the album. The exaggerated feel that ‘Field of Opportunity’ has – from the extended metaphor to the very country tune, the fiddling (yep, it’s definitely called a fiddle, not a violin, in this case) and even the nasal voice that Mr. Young adopts – is a bit jolting. Still, you can’t help but to wonder at the exact meaning behind the lines ‘In the field of opportunity it’s ploughing time again/There ain’t no way of knowing where these seeds will rise or when’. Then there’s the diverting ‘Motorcycle Mama’, an incongruously gritty blues rocker with larger-than-life vocals courtesy of Ms. Larson and larger-than-life lyrics courtesy of Mr. Young (‘Motorcycle Mama won’t you lay your big spike down?’). But these songs are not grievously annoying, and even better, they’re easy to skip since they’re back to back.

So, high marks overall to Comes a Time. Sweet and substantial.