Sample and Hold: Neil Young’s Trans Turns 40

Looking back on his excursion into electronic music

Neil Young Trans poster (Image: eBay)

Following on the heels of Re-Ac-Tor, its immediate predecessor, Trans marked a bold step forward in Neil Young’s ever-shifting trajectory. 

It was spurred by a number of developments — his departure from his longtime label Reprise in favor of the newly formed Geffen Records, his lengthy hiatus from Crosby, Stills, Nash &  Young, and exercises he was involved in with his son Ben, who had been born with cerebral palsy and unable to speak. It found him wholly abandoning his traditional template — that of a rock and roller and, buy turns, a folky troubadour — and turning entirely to electronic music through his newfound fascination with an instrument called a vocoder.

Initially inspired by the music of the experimental band Kraftwerk, Young’s new music — marked by its distorted vocals and otherworldly ambiance — took fans by surprise, and inspired mostly negative reactions from the critics. It was, after all, a chameleon-esque change in every regard. A previous album, Island in the Sun had been recorded and subsequently abandoned (NOTE: given Young’s constant retrieval of unreleased material from the vaults, wouldn’t this be a good choice for refueling?). So too, an early version of the album featuring the ever-faithful Crazy Horse was scrapped after Young opted to erase their initial contributions and overdub those recordings with synthesizers.

Neil Young Trans, Geffen Records 1983

Geffen was similarly surprised at Young’s change in direction. Although he had been guaranteed $1 million per release and complete artistic control, Young was nevertheless persuaded to delay the album’s release twice, from the final week of December 1982 to January 3, 1983, and eventually to January 10. Even so, it was shunned on release. Despite the fact that Young was never reticent about changing direction and following his own muse, Trans still ranks as the most controversial album in Young’s sprawling catalog. For some, it’s Young’s equivalent of Lou Reed’s horrid Metal Machine Music. Nevertheless, Young had a personal commitment to the music, explaining that the treated vocals were his way of communicating and reflecting his connection with his son. 

In retrospect, the album has garnered some grudging respect. In some regards, it points the way towards the future and the elevation of EDM as a forward progression in the decades that followed. It also found Young bravely reinventing himself — his synthesized remake of his perennial classic “Mr Soul” illustrates that intent succinctly — and in turn, foretelling his championing of the post punk underground several years later that earned him the nickname “The Godfather of Grunge” in the process. It also paved the way for Le Noise nearly 20 years later, and in a sense, served as a logical progression from Tonight’s the Night and Rust Never Sleeps, two previous albums that challenged their listeners and took them out of their audio comfort zones.

Trans back cover (Image: Discogs)

While Trans continues to confound, even in retrospect, it still boasts several songs of interest. “Little Thing Called Love,” “Computer Age,” “Transformer Man” and “Sample And Hold” are certainly arresting and even captivating in a decidedly unexpected way. That said, they require more than a passive listen to fully absorb their charms. 

There are those who will always consider Trans an ambitious experiment of dubious distinction. Certainly, given the length and breadth of Young’s extensive catalog, it’s been overshadowed by any number of triumphs released before and since.

Nevertheless, it remains a singularly distinct effort and one that pays due homage to Young’s daring and distinction.

 

AUDIO: Neil Young Trans (full album)

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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