Neil Young revisits marital woe, James Righton creates a lockdown alter ego – the week’s best albums

Neil Young's 42nd studio album Toast is imbued with singular character and power - Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP
Neil Young's 42nd studio album Toast is imbued with singular character and power - Rebecca Cabage/Invision/AP

Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Toast (Reprise) ★★★★★

Just when you are digesting one Neil Young album, up pops another. Officially, Toast is the Canadian troubadour’s 42nd studio album, not counting three with Buffalo Springfield, four with Crosby Stills Nash & Young, plus four soundtracks and over 20 live albums (with another due later this year).

To keep up would require dedication, and, indeed, the 76-year-old maintains his own archive website for that purpose, having released five box sets, a further 16 live albums and over 30 “official bootlegs” over the past 13 years.

It is a lot to wrap your ears around. For most consumers, Young’s glory days were the 1970s. And while there is a wide acknowledgement that (like other hard-working veterans including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Van Morrison) Young is steadfast in pursuit of his creative vision, the question is whether yet another Young album is worth the time and money. (Particularly since he has withdrawn his music from Spotify and other streaming platforms.)

The quality of his work can vary, even if his commitment is never in doubt. Yet when it all comes together, the results are imbued with singular character and power. Toast is one of those.

Which makes its long gestation a mystery. Toast was recorded in 2001 with his heavy rock trio Crazy Horse (in the classic line-up of drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, the last of whom retired in 2014).

Neil Young and Crazy Horse's Toast is absolutely mesmerising - Warner Records/BMG/AP
Neil Young and Crazy Horse's Toast is absolutely mesmerising - Warner Records/BMG/AP

The odd album title is the name of the San Francisco studio where these tracks were laid down. There are just seven songs extending over 50 minutes, with album closer Boom Boom Boom running over 13 minutes. Much of Toast is taken up with long, lyrical lead solos, weaving through gritty, compelling dirge rock. “All I got is a broken heart,” Young sings in his high plaintive voice. “And I don’t try to hide it when I play my guitar.”

The mood throughout is melancholic yet stoic, counterbalancing tender vocals and lovely melodies with the almost krautrock drive that Crazy Horse brings to their heavy grooves; fuzzy guitar lines criss-crossing as dynamics build and dip with hypnotic synchronicity. It is absolutely mesmerising – a group of musicians locked together in a long, sad dream.

“If I could just live my life as easy as a song / I'd wake up someday and the pain would all be gone,” Young laments on Gateway of Love. Young has explained “there is a time in many relationships that go bad, a time long before the break-up, when it dawns on one of the people, maybe both, that it’s over. This was that time.”

His late wife, Pegi Young, sings backing vocals on the weary opening track Quit, with the hurtful refrain “Don’t say you love me”. The couple eventually divorced, though not until 2014. Young decided Toast was “so sad, I couldn’t put it out. I just skipped it and went on to do another album”. Four songs (some with different titles) appeared in less raw forms on a 2002 soul album made with Booker T and the MGs. Yet it is here, backed by Crazy Horse, that they really burn.

“I'd like to shake your hand, disappointment,” Young sings on How Ya Doin? “Looks like you win again.” But there is nothing disappointing about the way he conjures art from emotional defeat. Toast deserves to be acclaimed amongst his finest works. Twenty-one years since the album was made, Young has reminded us once again why he stands tall amongst the greats of the rock era. That is worth toasting. Neil McCormick

James Righton releases a curious new concept album - Julian Klincewicz
James Righton releases a curious new concept album - Julian Klincewicz

James Righton, Jim, I’m Still Here ★★★☆☆

What a curious album this is by James Righton, a former member of Mercury-winning band Klaxons, a key member of the musical team behind ABBA’s virtual Voyage show, and the musician also known as Mr Keira Knightley. Jim, I’m Still Here is a concept album about a deluded rock star living out his fantasies from the confines of his London garage during lockdown.

Jim is the lavish alter ego of James, the father who changes nappies, cooks dinner and reads bedtime stories to his kids. But as soon as he steps into the garage he becomes, according to the album blurb, an “Islington Bowie” or a “Dalston David Byrne”. The lyrics to opening track Livestream Superstar make this clear: “Dressed in Gucci/ Head to toe/ Loafers on / James has gone/ You’ve got me now.”

It’s quite a novel idea. The music is a blend of synth-pop and Prince-lite funk. ABBA’s Benny Andersson provides a Synclavier synthesizer solo on ballad Empty Rooms (the cameo contains flashes of the Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! riff). The bass on I Want To Live builds thrillingly. Meanwhile on Pause, Righton takes the “Islington Bowie” comparison too far with a coda that mimics Fame’s descending backing vocals a little too closely.

Lyrically, the album reflects topics that were universal touchstones during lockdown. Aforementioned track I Want To Live sees Jim listing all the things he wants to do when freedom comes (climb Machu Picchu and make “reservations at all the high-end restaurants we’ve watched on TV but never got to go to”). A song about a friend of Righton’s who died of Covid after attending the Cheltenham Festival is affecting and moving.

But here’s the thing: it’s hard to know who this album is for. If you want to listen to clever and fresh Prince-like pop, listen to Harry Styles’s superior new album (or, indeed, Prince himself). And lockdown was weird for all of us. I could equally have developed an evening alter ego once I’d put the baby to bed. I could have sat in my shed-office and written, living out my word-based fantasies, dressed head to toe in a dressing gown, slippers on. The Clapham Hemingway. The Lambeth le Carré. But I didn’t because no one would care.

I genuinely hope people care about this album because Righton has obviously put a lot of work in. But as we joyfully embrace post-pandemic life and look to the future, I’m not sure who the audience will be for this slightly backwards-looking record. James Hall

Metric are a group with a strong identity - Justin Broadbent/CANON CANADA INK
Metric are a group with a strong identity - Justin Broadbent/CANON CANADA INK

Metric, Formentera ★★★★☆

It’s a brave band that opens a new album with a ten-and-a-half minute, claustrophobically pulsating track called Doomscroller that contains lyrics about piss trickling from the champagne glasses of the ruling classes while underpaid people scrub toilets. But such is the confidence and boldness of Toronto band Metric that this is precisely how they kick off their eighth album, Formentera.

Metric are a huge band – but not in the UK. Next month they play a vast gig in their hometown supported by Interpol and Spoon, two bands that would surely be above them on the bill were the concert to be in Britain. (Here, Metric play mid-sized venues such as the 2,300-capacity Kentish Town Forum). But don’t let this put you off. Metric are a group with a strong identity, ears for a blistering pop melody and – in singer Emily Haines – a frontwoman of immense charisma.

Formed in 1998, they would probably be described as a guitar band, but in fact they play new wave-y synth rock that is eminently danceable. There are touches of Garbage and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to what they do. And although Formentera starts densely, it mellows over its nine tracks.

The excitement of opening songs Doomscroller, All Comes Crashing and the rip-roaring What Feels Like Eternity give way to lush orchestration and swooning ballads. The title track sounds as breezy and laidback as the Mediterranean island after which it is named; it comes complete with a divine Giorgio Moroder-esque synth refrain. This vibe continues on tracks such as Enemies Of The Ocean.

The songs are glued together by Haines’s energetic voice, which is capable of belting out a pop tune with Lady Gaga-like power. The choruses of I Will Never Settle and False Dichotomy soar higher than Toronto’s sky-piercing CN Tower. You can tell that Metric have been around for a while: they have a solid grasp of song dynamics. Their skills are honed. It’s a pleasure to listen to tracks that build and flow so satisfyingly. It would be quite something to see them performed on the big stages they deserve.

Having said that, it’s probably too late in Metric’s career for them suddenly to break through to mainstream public consciousness with this album. No matter. Formentera is a gratifying record stuffed with perfectly crafted songs by a band completely at ease in their own skin. James Hall

Burna Boy, Love, Damini ★★★★★

Back in April, Burna Boy became the first ever Nigerian artist to headline Madison Square Gardens, selling out the most famous venue in the world to the tune of 20,000 tickets. The New York show was a roaring success: proof not just of the self-styled African Giant’s power as a performer, but of how his signature Afro-Fusion has become one of the defining sounds of the global music scene. Alongside similarly unstoppable artists, from Korea to Colombia (think: BTS and J Balvin), it has turned a traditionally Euro- and American-centric industry upside down.

Balvin is just one of a roster of international musicians on Burna’s latest project, Love, Damini, the follow-up to his Grammy-winning fifth album Twice As Tall; also featured are Brits Ed Sheeran and J Hus, Americans Kehlani and Khalid, Jamaica’s Popcaan, and fellow Nigerian Victony. South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo appear on both the opening track Glory, where Burna asserts that “this is my story”, and the closing Love, Damini, bookending a Pan-Africanist vision that brings together diasporic influences – from R&B to reggae.

As the title suggests, Love, Damini is by far the most personal record yet from Burna, born Damini Ogowulu in Lagos in 1991, and is best summarised as a love letter to his army of adoring fans (more than 10 million on Instagram alone). It covers everything from the existential angst that comes with fame, age and the burden of his mission (on the titular track: “I should show people more love while they still alive / I should always know thе way my people feel inside… I got it all, but I still got my anger”), to the smog in Lagos on Whiskey.

Wild Dreams with Khalid urges listeners to have heady levels of ambition, but closes with a stark warning: “Remember Martin Luther King had a dream, and then he got shot”. Cloak & Dagger, featuring Stratford’s J Hus, is sure to be the song of the summer for Londoners, while For My Hand with Ed Sheeran is a slick, ridiculously catchy, cool couple’s wedding song.

Self-development wisdom looms large, particularly on How Bad Could It Be, a five-minute song that starts with three speakers, including British singer Jorja Smith and an unnamed voice that sounds suspiciously like one Ms Naomi Campbell, sharing what they do to handle a bad mood. Despite the ambitious, often serious subject matter and occasionally lofty tone, however, the record is a really good time, delighting in playful production while showcasing Burna’s irresistibly melodic baritone at its absolute best.

An album for the ages, as well as being an awards season shoo-in, it is sure to succeed in doing precisely what Burna told Billboard his music is all about – “bringing people who don’t even speak the same language together to dance.” Kathleen Johnston