Mirror Ball Turns 20
Last week, Neil Young released a new record called The Monsanto Years. It isn’t very good. It’s a cartoonish protest concept record revolving around the agriculture company Monsanto and GMOs. The other distinguishing factor of the album is that Young chose to record it with Promise Of The Real, a band led by Lukas Nelson (son of Willie), with Lukas’ brother Micah joining in for the album as well. It all sounds a bit random, because it is — and because Young is, as a rule. He’s creeping toward having released 40 solo albums, and one thing you can always give the man credit for is that he remains more restless and more exploratory than pretty much any of his contemporaries, even if it sometimes results in stuff that comes off as some kind of a joke. But there are precedents for everything about The Monsanto Years, too, with concept/protest records like 2003’s Greendale and 2006’s Living With War. There’s even precedent for Young joining up with some young band to record an album with him … like that one time he made a record with Pearl Jam.
Mirror Ball came out 20 years ago tomorrow, when each artist concerned was in interesting, but very different, moments in their career. After a wonky, experimental ’80s that some fans get behind and others would like to forget, Young was in a resurgence in the ’90s, both in terms of quality and relevance. Ten years on from what-the-shit moments like 1982’s Trans and 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’, Young had returned to forms he excels at — loud, raw rock on 1990’s Ragged Glory, contemplative country on 1992’s Harvest Moon. Instead of these being the kind of conciliatory, flat retreads that so many classic-rock greats fell into as they aged out past the ’70s and ’80s, these are strong and revitalized return-to-form records. But Young was also being reclaimed as a luminary for a generation of bands favoring heavily distorted, sludgy guitars. The impenetrable walls of ragged rock that Young sloppily perfected with Crazy Horse was one of the blueprints for alternative bands in the late ’80s and early ’90s — you can hear it in Dinosaur Jr., you can hear it in Nirvana — which lead to the title “Godfather Of Grunge” getting thrown around. (It’s worth noting that Sonic Youth and Social Distortion were Young’s opening acts on the Ragged Glory tour.) It isn’t dissimilar from what happened with Springsteen and indie rock in the late ’00s, a classic-rock figure coming off of a weaker period in their career, finding their voice again, and simultaneously becoming a major influence for a collection of contemporary artists.
But all that was circumstance that just came to Young, who’s always just plugging along wherever his mood takes him. Mirror Ball was one more “let’s try something” for him, and it came at a more crucial turning point in Pearl Jam’s career. Pearl Jam skyrocketed to fame and became a massive rock band in the early ’90s, releasing Ten, Vs., and Vitalogy between 1991 and 1994; meaning, they got very famous and started trying to burn it down almost immediately. The year Mirror Ball came out found them in a particularly frayed position — worn out from a few years living at odds with their fame and success, undergoing violent but ultimately fruitful growing pains in terms of the personal dynamics within the band as well as their style. Mirror Ball was something of a rejuvenating tangent, a chance to take a step away from being one of the world’s larger rock bands and drift into the background a bit, which is at least what they always seemed to want at the time. Aside from a much-needed breather, Mirror Ball was also a small but important step in their own musical development. Vitalogy had turned up the punk influences, but the particular brand of scathing distortion that dominated it felt like an angrier descendent of Young and Crazy Horse; 1996’s No Code wound up featuring songs like “Red Mosquito” and “Smile” that lumbered, in the best way, in a Young-esque fashion.Mirror Ball is the side-project transition between the two. That’s before you get to the fact that two of Pearl Jam’s best songs — “I Got Id” and “Long Road,” both penned by Eddie Vedder — stem from the Mirror Ball sessions and later saw release as a companion single called Merkin Ball in late 1995.
There are probably multiple reasons why those two songs didn’t make the finished album, but it’s telling no matter what. This is still a Neil Young album with Pearl Jam serving as his backing band, not a record where the two artists collaborated equally. Vedder was hardly present for much of it, dealing at the time with the stalker situation he’d later chronicle in brief, ferocious fashion on No Code’s “Lukin.” In a way, Mirror Ball feels like a missed opportunity when you consider that. The one song where Vedder’s voice is most present is also the best song on the album, the seven minute “Peace And Love,” which was co-written by Young and Vedder and features two short showcases for the latter. It’s thrilling to hear the two play off of each other, a great from an older generation truly engaging with his progeny. There are parts that feel like Young, parts where you could imagine Young is singing Vedder’s melody, parts that don’t sound particularly like either artist. Young’s influence, when harnessed by Pearl Jam, lead them to a better, more lived-in place that suits them far better than the too-slick, too-simple rock records they’ve put out in the last decade. And while this sound isn’t anything new for Young in the ’70s or ’90s alike, there is something specific about hearing the readings offered up by Jack Irons, Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, and Stone Gossard instead of Crazy Horse. There’s no question that Crazy Horse is still the perfect backing band for Young, the exact kind of muscle he works best with, but having Pearl Jam in the studio was just a different kind of muscle, and it’s a bit of a shame that they didn’t push the interaction further, to see where else each could take the other.
Still, even though Pearl Jam brings their feel to the project, these are Young’s songs. Pearl Jam probably loved the chance for a project like this — not only to work with one of their heroes, but for a chance to work on an album where they weren’t solidly in the spotlight. So all of that being said, while it’s easy to wonder what could’ve been had they spent more time in the studio (the record is loose and live, recorded in a few days between January and February of 1995), or if they’d written 10 tracks together, the end result is we got another Neil Young curiosity. And it does happen to be not only one of the best of his detours, but also a strong overall entry into his hallowed but uneven catalog. The record itself is uneven, too — while nothing here is short of solid, there’s something that clicked in “Act Of Love” and something that didn’t in “Downtown.” There might not be the same kind of nuance or diversity than on Young’s string of ’70s masterworks, but that’s OK, too. If you’re the kind of person in the market for getting lost in a Young album full of loud guitars ignited by a Pearl Jam that felt, for the first time in a while, like a weight had been lifted, then Mirror Ball was a rewarding addition to the canon.
So even if it isn’t peak Young, Mirror Ball is still fascinating for the fact that it even happened; for the fact that these two very different careers intersected at this one weird moment and made something that really worked; for the fact that Mirror Ball is one small gem amidst the scraggly hodgepodge of Young’s work, while at the same time being an important piece in the only-semi-contrarian Pearl Jam fan’s pick for the band’s best era. Young didn’t need Pearl Jam as an of-the-moment shot of life into his career. Young’s career is always simply what it is: a series of unpredictable projects mixed in with several masterpieces; he’s always going to plug along doing whatever he feels like and people will always pay some degree of attention. Mirror Ball might be a second- or third-tier record of his, but that’s in a career where the amount of tiers and disparity between them means third-tier is still very, very good, and it’s one worth revisiting. Mirror Ball might also not be one of the most iconic records of the ’90s, and it definitely wasn’t either Young’s or Pearl Jam’s most iconic work, but it is a talisman of that era, of two artists briefly passing by each other and giving us something that’s a fascinating find once you get past the surface-level exploration with either of them.