Everything moves fast these days, including Neil Young, American rock’s vocal conscience.
Young may not be over-fond of modernity, often inveighing against poor quality digital streaming, but the 10 songs that make up his 38th–ish studio album are the sonic equivalent of tweets: concise, swift and reactive.
Written since his last album – a live outing, Earth, released in June and recorded, largely acoustically, in just four days– Peace Trail is in many ways very up-to-the-minute. In November, the singer spent his 71st birthday at Standing Rock, the site of a protest against the Dakota Access oil pipeline which threatens Sioux sacred lands and the principle that might – AKA oil money – does not equal right. A song called Indian Givers angrily pegs this as the latest skirmish in an age-old conflict, in which white settlers dispossess native Americans. Then they compound the insult by accusing these erstwhile “Indians” of being the “Indian givers”. Last week, drilling under a dammed section of the river was called off, but Young has subsequently called on the outgoing president to demonstrably enforce the no-drill zone.
As with his last few records, Young’s horror at the destruction of the environment remains high in the mix, with a grab-bag of other themes (ageing, self-belief, the iniquities of tech) and a silvery hope that “something new is growing”, as he puts it on the freewheeling title track. Here, Young’s electric guitar strafes the stream-of-consciousness lyrics with pissed-off gravitas.
Joining Peace Trail as one of the more satisfying cuts is Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders. Lampooning our state of heightened anxiety, Young links it to xenophobia with skilful sarcasm. It sounds like classic Neil – his sneery keening, the disgusted blare of harmonica, abetted by the creative looseness of session man Jim Keltner’s drumming (a lodestone throughout).
Perhaps this album’s biggest issue is expectation. Does it sound every bit like a 38th Neil Young album, one with a scant time-lag between ideas and their unadorned execution? Perhaps; some songs could definitely use an edit. The biggest surprise is probably the use of Auto-Tune, an ironic playfulness hard to foresee from a man who hates modern sound quality so much, he invented his own music player. As recently as Earth, Auto-Tune on Young’s records signalled the threat of artificiality; on the title track here, it is used more sympathetically.
Does Peace Trail suffer from a surfeit of straightforwardness? Well, folk song John Oaks bears witness to the death of an eco-protester with a leaden hand. Young certainly never received the memo in which top-spin and lightness of touch were decreed useful tools in the offensive to recruit millennials.
The key to this record, perhaps, lies in a song called Can’t Stop Working. The title reads like a broadside against exploitative labour practices, but it’s actually about Young keeping going. The times demand it, and his wellbeing does too.
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