Fire Note Says: At 72, Neil Young is still making a difference, wearing his politics on his sleeve, and producing anthems for the resistance.
Album Review: Neil Young has never been an artist to shrink back from a difficult political moment and leave you guessing what’s on his mind. Back in 1970, he released “Southern Man” about America’s issues with race, and “Ohio” which honored those who had died in the Kent State protests against the war in Vietnam. And as recently as 2006, he spent the entire Living With War album taking apart the Bush Administration and it’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That same year, Young hit the road with Crosby, Stills & Nash to revisit all their past protest songs which had a renewed sense of relevance. It was funny to hear stories from that tour of long-time fans walking out of their shows angry when Young performed “Let’s Impeach the President,” because their politics had grown more conservative. You can catch a glimpse of the audience response in the tour documentary film, “CSNY Déjà Vu.”
So it should surprise no one, that here in 2017, in one of the most contentious political seasons that anyone can remember, that Young has a few things to get off his mind about the Trump administration. This is Young’s second album with the Promise of the Real, a band fronted by two of Willie Nelson’s sons, Lukas and Micah. Their first collaboration with the 2015 album, The Monsanto Years, taking on the issue of GMO’s in much the same way that 2003’s Greendale addressed the way environmental issues and economic difficulties were impacting small time American life. Between those two albums, Young released the solo album, Peace Trail, recorded with studio musicians, and Hitchhiker, a solo acoustic album recorded in 1976. Together with Young’s launching a website that makes available to fans everything he’s ever recorded and released in one location, neilyoungarchives.com, it’s obvious that this 72 year old is still feeling vital and productive.
Young wastes little time getting to the point on The Visitor. Right from the start, Young confesses to his Canadian heritage, before assuring anyone within reach that he loves “the USA… The Freedom to Act, the Freedom to Say.” Declaring that America is “Already Great,” a clear reference to Trump’s “MAGA” theme, Young says, “you’re the promised land, the helping hand,” and then echoing protesters chants of “No wall/No hate/No fascist USA” and “Who’s street?/Our street,” a sentiment expressed in the recent anti-police violence protests in St. Louis this Fall. So there’s no hidden agenda here, Young’s still wearing his politcs on his sleeve.
The Nelson boys and their Promise of the Real cohorts are a good fit for Young’s music here, capable to get heavy like he has in the past with Crazy Horse, but also proficient with the loose jam band/Americana vibe that comes just as naturally to Young. Of course, on an anthem like “Stand Tall,” Young’s polemic is a call to action against the current administration, of which he says “The Boy King don’t believe in Science/It goes against the Big Money Truth/His playpen is full of Deniers/They’ll flush our future down the tubes,” and tellingly you can hear a Creationist voice their belief that the earth is only 6000 years old, as the song comes to the end. In the second verse he celebrates women’s rights, and the rainbow of diverse humanity. This is clearly an album aimed at the Resistance.”
On a couple of tracks, Young seems so angry he can’t even find the words to express it. In “Diggin’ a Hole,” Young is worried about the world we’re leaving to his grandchildren in this blues call and response, they’re “gonna need a long rope” he sings, to get out of that hole. In “When Bad Got Good,” Young proves to be prescient, as the song hangs on the “lock him up,” chant that was in the news the week after the record was released when General Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but Young was aiming his venom at “the Liar in Chief.”
But not everything here is obviously a political rant against our President. “Change of Heart,” feels vaguely autobiographical, the reflection of someone looking back over their life and acknowledging the ways they’ve grown and stretched and changed their mind. “Carnival” brings a Latin rhythm to a parable about a child’s experience of the Circus Freak Show which can at times resemble the everyday life we share. “Children of Destiny,” complete with full orchestration, is a call to action again, but more generally, Young wants us all to “Stand up for what you believe/Resist the powers that be/Preserve the land and save the seas.”
Musically, Young is not reinventing the wheel, this is Young’s country influenced folk/rock, supported by a band of youngsters not very different from when he was recording his early albums with the Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash. “Forever,” is a secular hymn of sorts, celebrating that “Earth is like a church without a preacher,” and “the people have to pray for themselves.” You can hear Neil struggling to hit the high notes, and it’s going to feel reminiscent to this artful rocker, who is sure even at this late date that he wants “to make a difference… on the road to heaven’s door.” And, as in his past, these songs will live on in the souls of people who find his words and music an encouragement on the journey. Not many of us will still be making work that stands up alongside our best efforts when in our 70’s, but Neil Young is beating the odds.
Key Tracks: “Already Great” / “Children of Destiny” / “Stand Tall”
Artists With Similar Fire: Bob Dylan / Willie Nelson / Crosby, Stills & Nash
Neil Young Website
Neil Young Facebook
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb