Here’s an album I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t get to for this long. Andrew Neil is a remarkable up and coming songwriter out of Charlottesville, Virginia. With a tragic and compelling background, Andrew suffered a head injury in a car crash in April 2009, a few months after resigning from West Point. This accident was the catalyst for the onset of a host of mental illness issues, leading to diagnosis of Schizoaffective and Bipolar Disorder as well as Complex PTSD. The head injury seems to have also opened a creative part of Andrew’s brain as he began to write songs out of nowhere, spite having no music training. Between the fall of 2009 and mid-2013, Andrew became withdrawn and reclusive, spending most of his time writing poetry and songs.
Andrew’s struggle with mental illness came to a climax in July 2013, when, at age 24, he suffered a psychotic episode and stabbed his younger brother through the arm. This resulted in Andrew’s arrest and being placed in solitary confinement in Orange County Regional jail for eight months before his lawyer made a successful case for him to be found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity. He was committed to the Virginia State Hospital system for three years, before being “conditionally released” to a group home where he lives now.
In Western State, Neil recorded a remarkable album, Code Purple, which I still own on vinyl even after selling 90% of my collection. Code Purple, named for a hospital term for psychiatric emergency, was composed and recorded entirely in Western State Hospital, making it the only commercially released recordings from a psychiatric ward. Recorded early in his stay, 2014 and 2015, Code Purple isn’t emotionally easy to listen to and I can’t recommend it to everyone due to that difficulty. Kind of like if Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska (see Feedback from 8/30/2018 for discussion of that album) dealt with insanity instead of criminals. It can be extremely validating for those who struggle with the same or similar issues, but it can also be very frightening to those who don’t.
Neil’s studio debut, Merry Go Round, released September 1st, is considerably more accessible. Taking a hard turn away from the acoustic aesthetic he was limited to in Code Purple, he dives right into 90s alternative rock with light doses of grunge for Merry Go Round. Light on the distortion that people so often associate with the genres, this album nevertheless draws heavily on production techniques and composition cliches that are hallmarks of them. The tone of the guitar on “Red” particularly jumped out as archetypal of the genre. However, beneath the solos and the ornamental guitar licks, the essential songwriting (chords and lyrics, essentially) remains quite consistent with the excellence of Code Purple. Exploring some of the same themes of mortality and control as on that first album, Merry Go Round also examines political upheaval and identity. “I Wish” stood out as an exceptionally different track both in terms of music and in terms of content in a way that meshed really well.
The ironic thing that occurred to me while writing this is that, while Code Purple deals more directly with mental illness, the artists I associated as influences on Merry Go Round (Chester Bennington, Chris Cornell, and Kurt Cobain, in no particular order) struggled with it more heavily than those I heard on Code Purple (Bruce Springsteen, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan). Merry Go Round also sounds more like what a younger generation would experience as angst – as is evidenced by the ages of the artists I associate with each album – so hopefully it will resonate with a new audience Code Purple might not have reached.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.