When Neil Young Found A Way To Communicate His Son With Disabilities

One of the primary purposes of music is to communicate with the listener and transfer our feelings, opinions and struggles through its effect. When life gives a musician pain and problems, he uses the language of music to express himself and find some relief. That’s the general story behind many rock and metal songs.

Take Green Day‘s ‘Basket Case’ as an example. Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the song when he was troubled with anxiety and panic disorders and conveyed his overwhelmed state to the audience. The song was well received and liked by many, but not every attempt to create music based on experience ends up as an absolute success.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young‘s former member, Neil Young, could not gain the admiration of the majority after releasing his twelfth album ‘Trans.’ His approach to this album was experimental and out of the ordinary for him and his fans with its electronic sound. Thus, some people and critics were not pleased with the project.

Young was inspired by Kraftwerk‘s style while making the album and extensively used a vocoder to get the sound he desired, but this was unusual for the musician. So, it inevitably received mixed comments. Although some critics found his attempt impressive, others considered it a failure; however, as a common perception, they all believed the album’s content and sound couldn’t balance and convey what Young wanted to tell.

The musician aimed to express his and his son’s struggles due to the latter’s disabilities. Neil Young’s children were experiencing different health issues, and one of them, Ben, had to receive treatment for his mutism resulting from cerebral palsy. His treatment coincided with the album’s production process, and Young wanted to express what they were going through with a new style, which he thought would best describe his situation, according to a 1995 interview with Mojo.

The vocalist explained his choice of style that received negative feedback by stating:

We didn’t spend as much time recording Re-ac-tor as we should’ve. The life of both that record and the one after it – Trans – were sucked up by the regime we’d committed ourselves to. See, we were involved in this program with my young son Ben for 18 months which consumed between 15 and 18 hours of every day we had. It was just all-encompassing, and it had a direct effect on the music of Re-ac-tor and Trans.

You see, my son is severely handicapped, and at that time was simply trying to find a way to talk, to communicate with other people. That’s what Trans is all about. And that’s why, on that record, you know I’m saying something, but you can’t understand what it is. Well, that’s the exact same feeling I was getting from my son.”

Despite his efforts to express himself through the lyrics and the album’s style, the two were seen as a mismatch. Even years after its release, it remains controversial and receives similar reviews to the ones made at the time. For example, William Ruhlmann of AllMusic wrote that ‘Trans’ was ‘an idea that just didn’t work’ on the website.

His point in the review was expressed as follows:

“Later, Young would reveal that some of the songs expressed a theme of attempted communication with his disabled son, and in that context, lines like ‘I stand by you’ and ‘So many things still left to do/But we haven’t made it yet’ seemed clearer. But the vocoder, which robbed Young’s voice of its dynamics and phrasing, still kept the songs from being as moving as they were intended to be… On the whole, it was an idea that just didn’t work.”

Neil Young wanted to convey his life struggles and communicate with his son through music by following an experimental route, but ‘Trans’ was not as successful as he aimed. Its success aside, the album is an admirable attempt from the musician, and despite the negative criticism, it’s been acknowledged by fans and critics as such.