Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Over the course of several albums, Neil Young has been attempting to drum up interest in his political protest music, from the anti-Bush collection Living With War to railing against corporations such as Monsanto and Starbucks. These sets have been tough sells, and tough to enjoy. It's not simply because he's being a downer; by and large his audience probably agrees with his views on the environment and big greed. It's just that for the most part, the lyrics have been awful, rushed and unpolished. His argument has been that these topics are so important, everybody has to listen now and act. But most of us know all these things and have our own opinions; how about some art and subtlety, Neil?

Well, this time, he's done it. Peace Trail is largely about the environmental protests being done by First Nations people across North America, something Young has long identified with and supported. Pipeline fights have increasingly grabbed his interest over the last few years, and the little guy protest against the big company and the state informs several of the 10 songs here. Finally, he's not beating us over the head with the lyrics. Instead, these are stories of people involved, like the decent farmer speaking up for his workers in John Oaks. The title cut, Peace Trail, instead of being negative is forward-looking and positive: "I see the same old signs, but something new is growing." And even the most obvious lyric, Indian Givers, about big industry trying to grab back land given in treaties, features stinging lines about corporations who run disinformation p.r. campaigns, trying to make themselves look like good guys: "Bring back the days when good was good/Lose these imposters in our neighborhood."

There's more exciting news in the music. There's a core sound here, a brand-new one for Young, for anyone. For most of the album, he's on acoustic, there's a young bass player named Paul Bushnell, solid and simple, and the great Jim Keltner on drums. Keltner's percussion is mixed way up, more of an equal than a rhythm holder. Young also drops in some electric guitar lines, but different than his normal proto-grunge. These are echoed, distorted single lines, layered on top. Plus he plays his nastiest harp ever, dirty and even more distorted than anything else. The melodies and acoustic work, plus the style of vocal delivery he's using remind me of the On The Beach album of 1974, one of his very best.

There are other songs than the protest material too, including the surreal Glass Accident, an intriguing number that seems to be about comparing a broken glass to a broken relationship. And the album ends with the hilarious My New Robot, which brings back the controversial robotic voice of the Trans album, only this time it makes much more sense, since his new robot has just been delivered by, and he's getting instructions on how to program it, and everything's just peachy. This is a fascinating, different, playful, well-crafted and complex set of songs, which is what I've been hoping for from this singular talent for a long time, and always thought he could still deliver.

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