Neil Young | Living With War (Reprise)

There can be no silencing Young, however, nor can there be any mistaking the frustration he feels over the present state of his adopted homeland.

 

Neil Young is many things, but something he has never been is predictable. In a career spanning five decades, the elder statesman of rock has displayed a knack for baffling even his most ardent fans, often recording rustic folk-rock records only to follow them up scant months later with noisy electric rock. Living With War, Young’s latest album, is faithful to this pattern. In September of last year, the Canadian-born Young released the mostly acoustic Prairie Wind, a gentle look back on the singer’s childhood in bucolic Winnipeg, Manitoba. Living with War, a scathing indictment of the Bush administration, is that record’s polar opposite in nearly every way.

The album is a fiery statement that was written, recorded, and released in just weeks. Young’s biting lyrics are succinct, and the accompanying music is aggressive and punchier than anything he has recorded since 1990’s Ragged Glory. His band is a lean power trio consisting of Young on electric guitar and the focused rhythm section of bassist Rick Rosas and drummer Chad Cromwell. The core musicians are accompanied occasionally by horns, and frequently by a powerful 100-voice choir. The production is suitably bare, with Young’s warbling voice fighting among dozens of others, as well as with the brash instruments, for dominance.

There can be no silencing Young, however, nor can there be any mistaking the frustration he feels over the present state of his adopted homeland. The album’s centerpiece is a track called “Let’s Impeach the President,” a catchy stomp that features audio clips of the Commander-in-Chief issuing seemingly contradictory statements about the war on Iraq as Young alternately chants “flip” and “flop” between snippets. “The Restless Consumer” finds Young revisiting a topic previously explored on 1988’s This Note’s for You, namely that of crass consumerism. Here, however, Young’s disgust is more palpable as he draws associations between Western greed and warmongering.

While these direct assaults are undeniably powerful, delivered as they are with an almost gospel fervor, Living With War is most successful (and runs the smallest risk of becoming dated) when it is least topical. “After the Garden,” a galloping rocker that serves as a pace track for the record, envisions a world with no need for any “shadow man runnin’ the government,” and makes elliptical references to the smoggy state of the environment. Meanwhile, the set’s strongest offering, “Roger and Out,” is a deeply felt elegiac to a fallen soldier. Young’s warm guitar, still rattling with distortion, snakes its way through the song as he sings, “I know you gave for your country/I feel you in the air today.”

It’s been said the catalyst for Living With War owes much to film director Jonathan Demme, who during the most recent South by Southwest keynote address urged Young to deliver “another Ohio,” a reference to the singer’s 1970 hit written in reaction to the Kent State shootings. The call to action has been heeded.


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