Young puts out an album with urgency
Last year, in the midst of suffering and being treated for a brain aneurysm, Neil Young managed to record “Prairie Wind,” a lovely and personal album.Illness, I suspect, can affect a person’s relation to time; mostly it injects a sense of urgency into one’s to-do list. The aneurysm – or maybe it’s just the prickly energy that has animated old Neil from the beginning – has now spurred another album, of a thoroughly different breed. “Living With War” is a protest against 21st century America, with a special venom reserved for President Bush and his War on Iraq.
The impact of the album’s thrashing rock is all the more forceful for sounding as if it was conceived, written and recorded in one furious night. It practically was: “Living With War” was released eight months on the tail of “Prairie Wind”; the 100-voice choir that adds a populist tone to several songs was recorded in a single session. One day I heard of the album’s existence; the next, a review copy was on my doorstep. So urgent was Young to get “Living With War” out, it was first available for streaming on Young’s website, then as a digital download, and finally in CD form. Young’s explanation for the mad rush is that he got tired waiting around for a younger musician to wage this battle.It’s a latter-day take on the methods of the early-’60s folksingers. Bob Dylan has said that he and his Greenwich Village cohorts would read the newspaper in the morning, concoct a song from the headlines in the afternoon, and test it out in the coffeehouse that night. Young specifically evokes young Bob: “Flags of Freedom,” which echoes Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom,” speaks of the impact Dylan’s protest music had on young ears.
Young has compressed time in this way before. In 1970, he responded quickly to the Kent State shootings with the indelible “Ohio.” “Restless Consumer,” in which Young momentarily readjusts his aim from politics to Big Business, repeats the phrase “Don’t need no more lies,” recalling the over-and-over cry, “Four dead in Ohio.”While the Bushies insist the world reserve judgment on Iraq, Young hasn’t time to wait. To him, the chapter has already been written: “Back in the days of shock and awe/ History was a cruel judge of all that confidence,” he spits in “Shock and Awe.” Young lays out the obvious solution in “Let’s Impeach the President,” whose point requires no further explanation.
That represents Young at his most outspoken. But “Living With War” is not all finger-pointing anger. In the title track, the most melodic tune here, Young looks in the mirror, and contemplates what it means to live “with war in my heart and my mind.” He may be Canadian-born, but Young has been an American since the country first learned where Vietnam was on the map. Young reconciles his demand for peace with his country’s war-making by taking a “holy vow never to kill again.””Living With War” isn’t subtle. Not with titles like “Let’s Impeach the President,” which opens with a trumpet blowing “Taps” and features a sequence of Bushisms that have been shot down, and “Looking for a Leader.” Not with the choir singing an album-closing “America the Beautiful,” emphasizing the sense of patriotic duty here. The sound isn’t mannered either, with thick electric guitars and thumping drums. It’s not the sound of early ’60s folk. But it has a most folkie purpose: singing out against the world’s ills while that protest might still make a difference.
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