Four dead in O-hi-o. Southern man, when will you pay them back? A kinder, gentler machine gun hand. Like many musicians of his generation, Neil Young has never shied away from political statements. However, his views haven’t always been easy to pigeonhole as left-leaning, complicated as they are by Nixon-empathy (“Campaigner”), his early-80s support for Reagan, and most recently, his ill-advised United 93 quickie tribute “Let’s Roll” (not as lingeringly embarrassing as Paul McCartney’s “Freedom”, but a stumble nonetheless).
These mercurial politics have a lot to do with Young’s impulsive nature; as his manager Elliot Roberts put it in Jimmy McDonough’s biography Shakey, “If he watches TV on the road and there’s a CNN special on Bosnia, Neil wants do a record and a benefit within two days.” With his attention now directed toward the current Bush administration and Iraq war, that M.O. hasn’t changed; in fact, the internet’s greased distribution wheels have fueled it, allowing Living With War to travel from studio to stream to stores in roughly a month’s time.
This fast-track approach has both advantages and drawbacks. Lyrically, Living With War captures all the indignant ferocity and off-the-cuff logic of a blog-post screed: calls for impeachment, “Mission Accomplished” mockery, etc. Obviously, Young’s not dishing out well-measured, footnoted policy analysis here, but neither is he bothering with metaphor or subtlety– it’s all direct, literal, and viscerally emotional. It’s a bold move: Shooting from the hip opens Young up to a whole list of easy talking-point criticisms (“oh my god, he was born in Canada!”), and the proper-name references almost guarantee a brief shelf life.
But from a musical perspective, Living With War’s short gestation benefits Young’s performance, inspiring him to make his loudest, rawest release of new material since at least Ragged Glory, maybe even Rust Never Sleeps. With his guitar re-tuned to its characteristic distorted snarl, and the clearly live mix preserving bum notes and sloppy harmonica or trumpet solos, Young returns to the spontaneous recording style of albums like Tonight’s the Night that best suits his talents. Coming hot on the heels of the contemplative Prairie Wind, the serrated guitar of “After the Garden” and “Restless Consumer” quickly puts to rest any notion that post-aneurysm, sixty-something Neil was going to slip quietly into retirement.
The album’s most effective political statement– the decision to use a 100-strong choir for backing vocals– has little to do with the lyrics. As unrehearsed as the main instruments, the choir is used not for pretentious ends, but as a way to turn every song into a mass protest, with Young’s distinctive howl falling back into the mix behind the wall of voices on the title track or the centerpiece “Let’s Impeach the President”. Ironically, preaching to the choir with a choir saves Young’s complaints about cable news, photo-ops, and pharmaceutical ads from succumbing to faded-hippie fogeyism.
Alongside Bruce Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Living With War is the second album this spring on which an elder rock statesman makes an effective protest record with a raucously communal approach, reverently covering historically heavy anthems along the way (“America the Beautiful”, in this case). As a political statement, however, Young’s record may be more fleeting, with its topical references to steroids and New Orleans. But despite the press releases, the impulsive politics of Living With War are almost incidental to its success, mere fuel for Neil Young to return to the vicious sound he’s neglected in recent times.
A Biased Review
I still get goose bumps when I listen to Stephen Stills’ Find the Cost of Freedom and Neil Young’s Ohio. Maybe it’s because at the time those songs came out, I was a part time college student who feared each day’s mail because I was certain it would contain the dreaded letter from the draft board that started with “Greetings” and ended with a trip to a jungle in southeast Asia.
Whatever the reason, the experience established Neil Young as the quintessential antiwar protest artist in my mind. Though there were many others of equal caliber, it was Young who resonated at a visceral level for many of us whose lives were affected, directly or indirectly, by the war in Viet Nam.
It is against this backdrop that I have been anxiously waiting for Young’s Living With War album, wondering how my 50-something perspective might alter how I would react, compared to my something-teen self.
Was It the Same?
Sure, I knew it would be different. For starters, there would be no Nash, no Stills, no Crosby to harmonize. There’s no draft to sweat now. Nobody I know is serving in Iraq. Still, my expectations were high, based on the huge impact the artist had on my still-developing psyche back in the day.
I wasn’t disappointed. Young hasn’t lost an ounce of his ability to nail a thought, a feeling, a mood, and vividly express it through lyric, melody, and voice.
Just as it was in the early ‘70s, Young can be brutal with his lyrics, as in “let’s impeach the President for lying” and “the shadow man running the government.” He can also be hopeful (“I raise my hand in peace, I take a holy vow never to kill again.”) He can express disappointment (“Have you seen the flags of freedom? What color are they now?”) and optimism (“Someone walks among us, and I hope he hears the call. Maybe it’s a woman, or a black man after all.”)
Still the Voice
Musically, Young does much with just his guitar, Chad Cromwell’s drums, Rick Rosas’ bass and, briefly but poignantly, Tommy Bray’s trumpet. Young’s voice has matured as he has. Although last year’s Prairie Wind was a personal, reflective album, the artist seems much more a material part of the songs on this album.
A 100-voice choir is used effectively, especially on the closing track, an a cappella arrangement of America the Beautiful that reminds us that the artist is more than just a strident complainer – that he is, above all, a patriot.
Will the same radio stations that blacklisted the Dixie Chicks because one of them criticized the President do the same to Neil Young? Probably not. Not only is the mood of the country different now, Young long ago earned his props as a spokesman for values he shares with what is fast becoming the majority of Americans.
Oh, and, in case you’re wondering, I never did get that letter from the draft board, and my number never came up in the draft lottery. A couple of my high school buddies went and came back in coffins. A college roommate went and came back with physical, mental and emotional scars that he still carries today. Neil Young speaks for them, too.
From BBC Music
Neil Young is no stranger to putting politics in music. He’s spent his entire career offering up the occasional haranguing to sit side-by-side with beautiful songs and his entire last album, Greendale, was a statement on protesting and the environment.
Living With War, as the title suggests, is inspired by America’s involvement in Iraq and the Bush administration in general, and is filled with the dual towers of anger and imagery that have powered him since his rage truly began three decades ago on “Ohio”.
That said, his ire does weigh a little too heavily at times, infecting songs that could have done with a moment or two to breathe, instead of being hammered down your throat.
This is the Neil Young of Rust and of Mirrorball. You might not agree with his politics, but when he’s angry, he’s a formidable songwriter. Living With War is another fist in America’s gut.
For such a raging peacenik hippie, I don’t recall Neil Young writing too many protest songs during the Vietnam War era. He might have written or performed one or two, but he certainly never released an album of all protest songs until now. He must have been feeling bad about that, so when this new war popped up in 2003 that got Neil Young’s goat, he decided the time was right to rectify that previous mistake. He also didn’t seem to care much for the American president, ole Dubya. God knows why.
I remember reading about this album in 2006 when it was released, particularly about the song “Let’s Impeach the President.” The conservative pundits then told him to run off to Canada, which should be easy for him ‘cos that’s where he’s from. But Neil Young is a member of the world, and members of the world ought to be able to exercise free speech about the leaders of the free world. I believe in free speech and freedom of expression, and I enjoy hearing the things people come up with under the protection of these freedoms. Even if they get rude and nasty sometimes. (Sometimes I claim I don’t, but I’m only trying to be funny.) …….I even like hearing people exercise their freedom of speech after political parties have switched power, and there is a new voice of dissent. (Seriously, nothing irks me more than listening to the same people who nastily protested Bush all these years telling people who are now protesting Obama that they should shut up and do something else. Bah!!!) But I digress.
There is one side-effect of any album that tries to influence national policy: it is usually melodious. I mean, it has to be, if there’s any chance that any of these songs will get stuck in our heads and influence our thinking! Neil Young’s Living With War is no exception. This is his most sing-songey album. EVER. He even hired a crowd of back-up singers to sing throughout this album to simulate the feeling of standing in a crowd, watching Neil Young on stage while all the hippies surrounding you are singing along with the war protest lyrics. (And WHOAH!! I can’t stress enough to you how thrilled I am that these songs have choruses. Keep it up, Neil Young!)
Unfortunately, even though he is concentrating on strong melodies for perhaps the first time in his career, it doesn’t mean that they are great ones. I’m happening to be writing this review a few hours after completing the track reviews, and I honestly can’t recall how a single one of these ditties goes. Even the only song I gave an A to, “Families,” I don’t remember the melody. All I remember is I enjoyed listening to it quite a lot, and I found its lyrics poignant. That song is about the only one that I really like based on the lyrics. Most of the others are too bitter, too cynical, or too political for me to take them to heart. But I did find them interesting to read. I spent a lot of time in the track reviews extracting portions of my favorite lyrics, because I found them intriguing. But another reason I did that was because there wasn’t a whole lot else to talk about.
That brings me to what’s by far the biggest flaw of Living With War: all of these songs (except two) sound exactly the same. Oh, there are subtle differences here and there, but when you boil them down, they’re all mid-tempo, sing-songey songs. The good news is that I like the way they sound. Neil Young brings back his ultra-distorted grunge guitar from the ’90s, but instead of torturing us with it, he keeps it strictly in the background to lend all these songs a gritty texture. Interestingly, I’m not too fascinated with the two deviant songs. One is a straight choral rendition of “America the Beautiful,” which technically might be a fitting conclusion for the album, but everybody in the world has heard that song a billion times and Young adds nothing new to it. The other is the slowly paced “Roger and Out,” which has thoughtful lyrics about dead soldiers, but it has a tedious, plodding pace and a not-too-fascinating melody.
When it’s all said and done, this is another good Neil Young album and certainly one of his best of the ’00s. Most of the songs are upbeat and enjoyable, which is a good thing! But most of these songs sound the same, which could get tiring to some listeners. Of course, the main focus on the album is not the melodies, but the lyrics, which are frequently bitter and biting. Not that any of them had any effect on government policy, whatsoever. Really, I don’t even know why celebrities even try. People might take a few minutes to listen to what they have to say, but in reality nobody really cares. …Then again, come to think of it, President Bush was ousted from office after Neil Young had released “Let’s Impeach the President” ……Shall we say, “Mission Accomplished?”
By Alexis Petridis @ The Guardian
Neil Young is rock’s great floating voter. As befits a man nicknamed Shakey, his political vacillations are legendary. In the early 1970s, he savaged Nixon on Ohio and Ambulance Blues, then decided he felt sorry for the disgraced president and, two years later, wrote Campaigner to prove it. This turned out to be merely an amuse bouche for the main course of the 1980s, when Young unexpectedly metamorphosed into Norman Tebbit. Ronald Reagan and nuclear weapons were apparently a good thing, the welfare system less so. Then there was Aids, about which Young pronounced himself very concerned. Not with research or healthcare, but with the prospect of “a faggot” working in the fruit and veg department of his local supermarket: “You don’t want him to handle your potatoes,” he counselled. By 1989, when the threat posed by homosexuals touching his King Edwards had presumably abated, Young had turned once more, socking it to Bush Sr on Rockin’ in the Free World.
In the aftermath of 9/11 Young was initially hawkish, writing the Give-War-a-Chance anthem Let’s Roll and supporting the Patriot Act, but the war in Iraq prompted another volte-face. Last month, he wrote and recorded an entire album in nine days, protesting both the war and Bush Jr’s presidency.
However, the most pressing question Living With War raises for long-term Young fans is less political than musical. Young is the kind of venerable artist whose classic work is so important and influential that it casts a rosy glow over his more recent output. Everything he releases is greeted as a startling return to form, but the truth is that he hasn’t made a great album since 1995’s Sleeps With Angels. For 10 years now, he has seemed to be a man coasting towards retirement. It would be nice if Living With War’s speedy, reactive gestation indicates Young rousing himself from a decade of cosy torpor.
That’s certainly the impression given by the album’s opener, After the Garden. It sounds like a sparser take on Crazy Horse’s thud-and-blunder approach, with the surprise addition of a 100-piece choir. It surges unstoppably, which is more than you can say for much of Young’s recent work. The challenge of writing songs designed to lodge immediately in people’s heads seems to have forced Young to come up with strong melodies, something else noticeably absent in his oeuvre of late. The lyrics are surprisingly great throughout: affecting when they’re dealing with specifics, as on Flags of Freedom’s depiction of a young girl watching her Iraq-bound brother parade through town, then scabrous and witty when sloganeering. “But thank God he’s cracking down on steroids,” sniffs Young, drily, after detailing the umpteen charges against Bush on Let’s Impeach the President. “Someone walks among us and I hope he heeds the call,” he sings on Lookin’ For a Leader. “Maybe it’s a woman or a black man after all.”
It would be wrong to describe Living With War as an unqualified success. There’s the sense that Young decided to book the choir first, then worry about what to do with them. The force of their voices thrills on Let’s Impeach the President and Restless Consumer, and it’s a hard heart that remains unmoved by America the Beautiful, but they lurk unnecessarily around the whole album, as if he ran out of ideas but was determined to get his money’s worth.
The wisdom of Young’s decision to employ a trumpet player is similarly debatable. You can see the logic – trumpets sound martial, bellicose and so on – but the title track opens with what can only be described as the trumpet duelling with Young’s corrosive guitar. It’s a new entry in the chart of all-time most horrible sounds on a Neil Young record, up there with him whinnying through a vocorder on Trans and the here-come-de-Lilt-man Caribbean accent that he adopted during 1979’s Live Rust.
However, perhaps examining Living With War too closely misses the album’s point. Recorded in a hurry, rush- released on the internet, it is clearly not intended as a lasting entry in the Young canon, more a jolt designed to cause the kind of trouble on which Young thrived in his confrontational youth. It seems to have worked both ways: Fox News are baying for his blood, while a fortnight ago, he could be seen parrying questions on CNN and looking like he was having the time of his life. On Living With War, he sounds that way, too.
Of course, on past form, Young could easily change his mind and turn Republican next month. But for now, as he bellows about the “stinkin’ war”, and wrenches one corrosive solo after another from his guitar, cosy retirement seems a long way off.