Neil Young – Living With War (Album Review)

June 21st, 2006

It allegedly took Neil Young nine days to record (and write most of) this collection of songs. It’s taken me about a month to review it – partly because I’ve been feeling “tired and emotional” but mostly because I REALLY didn’t want to give Neil a bad review – and yes, all devoted Neil Young fans refer to “him” as “Neil”. Sad, eh?

If I was choosing a Neil Young album to recommend to someone who’s never heard him before, it wouldn’t be this one. Neil sounds angry – ornery even – but also like he can’t really be arsed to come up with any new tunes or ground-breaking ideas. Given the subject material – we’re all living with war, kids – you might well expect the brow-beating, right-on attitude and the sounds he wrenches out of his trusty guitar “Old Black” are certainly in keeping with the mood.

The big themes Young deals with here are obvious enough and very topical – the “war on terror” and the environment. “After the Garden” opens the album with the standard four chords, rock steady back line and some truly enlightening lyrics which I haven’t written down – listen to it, it’s good: “After the Goldrush” for the iPod generation.

Listening on through similar tracks “Shock & Awe” and “Let’s Impeach The President” – well, you get the picture and you may not have even listened to it – I began to wonder who’s opinion Neil is reflecting. His own? “The kids”? Didn’t the Dixie Chicks and quite a few others oppose the war three years ago, before it began? Is Neil trying to jump on a bandwagon that left town a while ago? He claims in a recent interview to have written about these issues because he feels no one else has – I don’t know about that, but I can see that he is reflecting a growing mood in the US where some Americans are beginning to wonder if the decisions that were made for them were the right ones.

To do this, Neil employs an interesting juxtaposition of clunking, dirty guitars and a 100-strong choir throughout a number of the tracks. It really does sound impressive…but be warned, Neil does not always allow us to enjoy these two musical treats, sometimes he sings. Or shouts. Or caterwauls. Whatever, it ain’t pretty, but at least it’s mercifully short – a couple of shouted choruses. It’s all a distant memory by the final track, a beautiful rendition of “America, the Beautiful” by the aforementioned choir. I think without irony.

And that’s my conclusion really, I’m not sure if Neil is so American these days that satirical comment is beyond him or whether he’s still got a bit of Canuck left in him that dares George W to prove him wrong – and care. I can say this is an interesting album; I really like the randomness, the variation of sounds – massed vocals, horns, bludgeoning guitars. The rawness works most of the time; it’s definitely worth giving it a chance but I don’t think it’ll be seen as a classic offering from ole Shakey.

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