Trans is the most maligned record in Neil Young’s canon. Its only competition, 1983’s inexplicable genre exercise Everybody’s Rockin’, is erratic enough to warrant the occasional rediscovery or fleeting interest; the baffling Trans and its peculiar vocoder pop, is comparatively straightforward than that of its regressive predecessors Hawks & Doves (1980) and Re-ac-tor (1981), and easier to peg – therefore easier to dismiss.
When music mogul David Geffen launched Geffen records in 1980, he dished out big bucks for a stable of major acts including John Lennon, Donner Summer, Elton John and Neil Young – a move instigated by Geffen having known Young as a friend since the 60s, with an assurance of artistic autonomy. Geffen wanted the success to mirror that of Asylum in the 70s which had included Neil as part of CSN&Y. When Young delivered an album called Island in the Sun, a country record following on from the acoustic materiel on his previous albums, Geffen refused it, telling Neil he wanted something more “rock ‘n’ roll”. This refusal infuriated Neil. Having met with Devo during the making of his anti-nukes movie Human Highway, he had established a kinship with the new wave movement. Neil was experimenting with synthesizers, the Synclavier and a Sennheiser Vocoder, and his musical direction consequently took on an electronic influence, as well as an attempt to communicate with his disabled son Ben. Young re-recorded a space-age cover of his Buffalo Springfield classic Mr Soul, and had soon compiled an album of songs from two very different projects, three from Islands… and six new synthesizer tracks. For better or for worse, Trans was born.
Album opener Little Thing Called Love and Hold On to Your Love are about as conventional as it gets here; pretty, delicate, thin melodies applying good old fashioned slide and pedal steel guitars. Nine minute journey-epic album closer Like an Inca’s two-note synthesizer motif is the strongest track on the album, sitting comfortably alongside Neil classics such as Cowgirl in the Sand or On the Beach. The remainder of Trans features Neil’s disembodied singing over electronic drums, synthesizers and various synthetic sound effects: Computer Age, We R in Control, Transformer Man are all strong minor key melodies; Sample and Hold is particularly good, out-Kraftwerking their Trans-Europe Express sound, an obvious influence. On occasion the two approaches cross paths, as on Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher) based around a vintage guitar riff, unfortunately becoming drenched in synth mush once underway.
Trans bombed upon its release and Neil’s follow up album, the aforementioned career suicide attempt Everybody’s Rockin’, was the last straw. Geffen sued the singer for “making deliberately unrepresentative music” for millions of dollars. The law suit was eventually settled amiably and Neil went on tour before releasing something of a compromise in the turgid Old Ways (1985), decent Landing on Water (1986) and uneven Life (1987), his last album with Geffen. Trans, written off as a disastrous venture into electronic music, is a better album than all of these; at best a loopy departure, at worst a bizarre yet brave experiment.
- Little Thing Called Love ∗∗
- Computer Age ∗∗∗∗
- We R in Control ∗∗∗
- Transformer Man ∗∗∗∗
- Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher) ∗∗
- Hold On to Your Love ∗∗∗∗
- Sample and Hold ∗∗∗∗
- Mr. Soul ∗∗∗
- Like an Inca ∗∗∗∗∗