Monday, May 08, 2006

Neil Young starts all over again

Well, all those people, they think they got it made
But I wouldn't buy, sell, borrow or trade
Anything I have to be like one of them.
I'd rather start all over again.

Neil Young, "Motion Pictures," from On the Beach

To find a little perspective on Neil Young's Living With War, consider that arguably the darkest album in the history of pop music is his 1974 release On the Beach.

Backed by Rick Danko and Levon Helm, Neil let loose a bruised-up vision of distintegration and personal apocalypses. The album is a lush, paradoxically trippy rebuke of hippie excess. A couple of years earlier, in "Needle and the Damage Done," Neil was the first major rock figure to warn against the wages of drug use, and by the time On the Beach was recorded, his friend and roadie Bruce Berry had died of a heroin overdose. Berry's death had already become the subject of the then-unreleased song "Tonight's the Night," and when he recorded On the Beach, Neil was in a bleak mood.

In songs like "Revolution Blues" (about a Charles Manson-like cult leader, with lyrics like "I've got the Revolution Blues/ I see bloody fountains/ 10,000 dune buggies coming down the mountain/ I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars/ but I hate them worse than lepers/ and kill them in their cars"), "Ambulance Blues" (a bitter remembrance of "the old folky days," described as Neil's "Desolation Row") and "Motion Pictures" (a kiss-off to actress and ex-girlfriend Carrie Snodgrass), Neil renounces the California scene that made him, then nearly broke him.

He is, after all, the only celebrity that Charles Manson spoke kindly about. Neil once gave him a motorcycle.

Neil then released another dark masterpiece, Tonight's the Night, followed by the extraordinary Rust Never Sleeps. Thereafter came his artistic confusion of the '80s, memorable mostly for the anti-commercial anthem "This Note's For You" and a love-affair with the synthesizer.

Like Dylan when he went electric and then found Jesus, Neil has frequently, aggressively, pugnaciously reinvented himself. He fights with his music and with his fans. An album of acoustic love ballads is followed by an album of guitar anthems. He writes "Ohio," and the next decade speaks favorably of Reagan.

"On the Beach" looked back on the "old folky ways" of CSNY, and they turned out to be "pissin' in the wind."

Artistic merits aside, Living With War is an album about Neil Young roaring back. Living With War is the reversal of On the Beach -- as triumphant as On the Beach was dark, as idealistic as On the Beach was cynical. It's not a mournful, earnest protest album. It's a protest album disguised as party rock. It punches walls, spins around, breaks some glasses, and pours another. If Neil's fall release Prairie Wind had the tones of an aging legend singing out a valedictory, Living With War is a wolf whistle from an angry artist who will not go gently into that good night.

The first song is called "After the Garden." CSNY's song "Woodstock" memorably included the line, "we've got to get ourselves back to the garden." "After the Garden" attacks the idea that there needs to be a strongman to run the government, and repeatedly asks the question about what happens "after the garden is gone." This is Neil picking up on a CSNY lyric -- the garden being an unattainable ideal that animated the movements of the 60s, but trailed off. The song isn't so much idealizing the peace movement of the 60s so much as wondering what happened to the people who let it die. It's not accusatory -- Neil would have to include himself in that category. And it's not maudlin. The song rocks. It opens with big guitar riffs, and if there's an underlying tone to the lyrics, it's the idea that the bad times are going to pass.

The whole album is like that. Even when Neil is singing about dark subjects, it's not the mournful sounds of Dylan's "Masters of War" or "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall," or even Neil's "Ohio." It's confident and assertive. Neil isn't asking for anything or pleading for change -- he's here to tell people how it is, and if you're not getting it, go someplace else. He's more of a defiant teenager than he was when he wrote "Sugar Mountain."

The second song, "Living With War," may be the weakest track on the album. It's not a bad piece of work, but it's a little inward-looking (with lyrics like "I'm living with war every day/ I'm living with war in my heart every day.") and the one song on the album where his 100-person choir softens the sound rather than intensifies it. Song number three, "The Restless Consumer," starts with a rumbling guitar dirge that could come from Rust Never Sleeps. It's the most pissed-off song on the album, linking Madison Avenue to the marketing of a war, cut up with the refrain, "don't need no more lies." It then jumps into a Jeffrey Sachs-like riff on famine and poverty. Even though Pearl Jam and grunge rock grew directly out of Neil's work, this song brings Pearl Jam's Ten to mind.

The fourth track, "Shock and Awe," is Neil's most direct attack on President Bush. The "Mission Accomplished" speech is juxtaposed with "thousands of bodies in the ground." Starting the song by alluding to the promise of liberation, it's a litany about the death and destruction that followed.

A song called "Families" breaks up the anger. There's a slight Bruce Springsteen sound to it. There's a triumphant, joyful sound. The song is, I think, the thoughts of a soldier, looking back with a combination of pride and euphoria on everything that waits for him when he gets back home. A song like this breaks up any charge that Neil is an America-hater, or the album a cynical exercise. On any other album, this could be seen as a piece of a pep rally. Coming in the middle of Neil's hard-earned outrage, though, the song is more poignant. When Neil hits the triumphant closing lines -- "I can't wait to see you again in the USA" -- I got a swell-in-the-throat feeling, not being able to wait for things getting back to normal, the way I felt when I finished Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

The next song, "Flags of Freedom," hits similar notes. Think John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses" with a topical edge: "Flags that line old Main Street/ Are blowin' in the wind/ these must be the flags of freedom flying." The family's youngest son goes off to war while his sister listens to Bob Dylan and "sees the President speaking on a flat-screen TV in the window of the old appliance store," while her brother walks past. It's a slice of life, relatively apolitical, as allusive as a Raymond Carver short story.

Then comes "Impeach the President." This is the song I feared. There's nothing worse than an earnest artist taking on a grand subject and failing. Good news and hallelujah -- this song is a rock spectacle, Neil's catchiest and most memorable since "Rockin' in the Free World," less of a visceral indictment than "Shock and Awe," more of a cat-call and mockery of the president. After laying out his affirmative case -- including wiretapping, Hurricane Katrina, and a secrecy fetish -- the song jumps into an incredibly catchy chant of "flip flop," backed by recordings of the president's own words. The song's tune is catchy as hell, and the lyrics are packed with effective imagery. You hear this song, and the past five years run before your eyes in all of their misery, but with a strangely comical tone. It's angry, yes, but also oddly sentimental, and slightly hilarious. Not that the song is funny, but hearing Bush's own words accompanied by the "flip flop" chant balms some of the memories from 2004.

"Lookin' For a Leader" is a non-partisan plea for someone to come forward "to bring our country home" and "reunite the red white and blue." He singles out Barack Obama and Colin Powell as our best hopes, noting that whoever the ideal leader is, "he's walking here among us and we've got to seek him out." It's not a bad song, but it's not one of the album's most memorable. Its lyrics function as a worthy postscript to "Impeach the President."

The next song, "Roger and Out," is the song that triggered my earlier comparisons to On the Beach. It's not one of the album's signature pieces, but I think it's the key to decoding Living With War to Neil's other work. It starts with the lyrics, "Trippin' down the old hippie highway/ I got thinking about you again/ Wonderin' how it really was for you/ and how it happened in the end." It's a piece of Americana, sentimental about the Hippie Highway, looking back to registering for the draft with a friend, "laughing all the way." It repeats the lyrics "roger and out, good buddy," and you realize that it's a song about warmly remembering a friend who died in the Vietnam War.

"Roger and Out" is Neil making peace with his past, and, even though I'm sure he didn't conceive of it this way, the era of On the Beach and Tonight's the Night. It's a warmer and more effective look back than the straightforwardly sentimental Prairie Wind. Coming after the album's protest-rock party-songs, it's a little bit of closure, looking back on other hard times that passed and someone that was there with him.

Because while this album might be a lightning-rod, a political jeremiad, a hard-rock triumph, a more topical update of Green Day's American Idiot, a great complement to Pearl Jam's new release, and Neil's most complete work since the peerless Rust Never Sleeps, it's a major development in Neil's career. This is Neil being young again, and he's bringing it all back home.

Living With War is now available for download on iTunes and available on CD. If you don't want to pay for it, e-mail Cole Slaw Blog, and maybe I'll buy it for you.


waterloo said...

Interesting: there's a shout-out to Jon Stewart in the liner notes, along with Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan.

I'm anxious to listen to this and "Greendale" in chronological succession. "Prairie Wind" was a little lethargic for me.

An underrated favorite? "Sleeps with Angels."

Sorry for the disjointed comment ...

CrimeNotes said...

I think his three 1994-96 albums -- "Sleeps With Angels," "Mirror Ball" and "Broken Arrow" -- are all underrated. My favorite of the three is Mirror Ball, especially the track "I'm the Ocean." I like "Sleeps With Angels," but it's the most polished of the three, and kind of like "Tonight's the Night" with Curt Cobain as Bruce Berry. It's been a long time since I've listened to it but I always associate it with Cobain. Almost everything Neil has done, I classify as an underrated favorite ...

I'll have to check out the liner notes, and agree that "Greendale" is a great complement to it. I thought about mentioning that, but my post was way long as it is.

Thrasher said...

Great review! Thanks for the note. I've linked back @

Passion of the Weiss said...

That was an amazing review. i was rather surprised when I heard the album especially in the context of it being after Prairie Wind. But I like it a lot. There is an undeniable sincerity to it that I think other recent protest themed albums lack (American Idiot comes readily to mind). Neil's protest seems to not come out of a Berkeley "I will protest anything" mentality, but more of a "I've had enough of this bullshit and lies," vibe. He isn't a radical or a revolutionary. He is a thinker and knowing this brings the album an additional weight in my eyes. Knowing that he respected Reagan in the 80s only makes me more a fan of this turn of thought for him. I'm no Reaganite but its nice to see that he considers both sides and makes the right decisions. That is something all too rare with artists. Plus, nice connection with On the Beach. You're right in that most of his Neil's albums are underrated in a way (with the exception of Are You Passionate, of which I don't have too many good things to say). But On the Beach might be the most underrated of all. It never makes any top lists or anything but it should. Great post.

CrimeNotes said...

Thanks so much PotW. I agree 100% with what you wrote about Neil's former Reaganite tendencies enhancing his credibility now. When "Greendale" came out, someone (I forget who) wrote that Neil's ideas have something to do with a mythical, pastoral America that never really existed, and that a lot of his ideas and politics aim to reclaim this ideal. That observation explained to me a lot of his apparent contradictions. He wrote "Ohio," then "Campaigner," then spoke well about Reagan, then got involved in Farm Aid -- I think Reagan's "morning again in America" theme must have appealed to Neil. In "Greendale," "Living With War," and "Ohio," the consistent thread is trying to fix some kind of loss of community. Reagan must have appealed to that part of him.

Also agree vis a vis "Are You Passionate?" and think that Neil's had a couple of other missteps along the way. But like Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick, I think Neil's failures are more interesting than the good releases of lesser artists.

Incidentally, I caught your site for the first time today after spinachdip linked to it. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

Thrasher -- thanks so much for the link. You're the epicenter of all things Neil Young, and a link from you is a real honor.

Charlie Ticotsky said...

nice review, i'm with you on most of it, however I think that in "Living with War" when they sing parts of the star-spangled banner you can't help but getting goosebumps, so I can't put it as the weakest song. Love "Roger and Out" and "After the Garden."

Anyways, Neil Young is the man.

CrimeNotes said...

Thanks Charlie. Neil most definitely is the man.

Bill Gannon said...

great review. Maybe its just me, but I need to listen to any new CD many times before I get it. This is true with my listening to Neil as well...Living with War grabbed me the first time. It made sense. I totally agree that back to back with Greendale, Neil is in the driver's seat. thanks!

CrimeNotes said...

Thanks for the comment, Bill. I agree that it usually takes a lot of listens to really appreciate an album -- it was a dozen times before I really felt "On the Beach" -- and that "Living With War" went down pretty smooth on the first listen. Partly it was that my anticipation was so high, but it's also more accessible than some of Neil's other work. It's still holding up well for me.