IT’S NEIL, AFTER ALL: Neil Young

On his latest topical
excursion, the bard tests our patience. Which we have, of course.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

There’s a moment of stark, heart-tugging beauty buried deep
in the bowels of Fork in the Road,
the latest and (dare I say it) intensely
bipolar album from Neil Young. “Light A Candle” is classic acoustic Neil, armed
here with reflective, this-is-the-big picture lyrics (it’s about the hope
that’s wrought by new beginnings and the endurance of the human spirit) and
augmented by delicate shadings of pedal steel and keyboards. Such moments have
always come naturally to the songwriter, and anyone who’s followed him closely
over the years will recognize both the “mode,” if you will, and the sentiment;
sometimes we refer to them as “Harvest moments.” Yet they’ve come fewer and farther between over the years too, typically
one per album, if that; on 2007’s all-over-the-map (notice I didn’t say
“bipolar”) Chrome Dreams II, for
example, it was closing track “The Way,” while 2006’s bluster-and-awe Living With War dispensed with subtlety
altogether.

 

This is not to argue that Fork in the Road (Reprise; www.warnerbrothersrecords.com) is
necessarily flawed, as it’s stuffed to the gills with the kind of manic, bluesy
crud and barnstorming rock that we Neil devotees also live for. Nobody’s going
to argue against the soaring, violent “Just Singing A Song,” the best NY &
Crazy Horse song since 2003’s Greendale to not feature Crazy Horse (for Fork, Young’s recent touring band of Ben
Keith, Chad Cromwell, Rock Rosas, Anthony Crawford and wife Pegi Young backed
him up), or the taut “Cough Up The Bucks” and its edgy swirl of choppy riffs
and “Cinnamon Girl”-like leads.

 

What Fork in the Road is, however, is frustrating. It’s similar
to Living With War in its thematic obsessiveness,
which may sound an alarm bell for anyone who initially dug LWW for its brick-to-face immediacy but ultimately didn’t find him-
or herself returning to it all that often. Granted, as with LWW, the album’s theme is intriguing –
honorable, even – as it metaphorically chronicles one man’s quest to get his
Linc Volt (www.lincvolt.com) project off
the ground, or more accurately down the highway, and then report back to the
rest of us citizens, in a combined flourish of ecological finger-wagging and
concerned social commentary, how we need not surrender hope if we can just
change our habits and work together. Some of the songtitles telegraph all this
– “Fuel Line,” “Get Behind the Wheel,” “Hit the Road,” etc. – while in the swaggering,
slide guit-fueled title track which closes the album, pretty much every thing
that’s been buggin’ us of late, from the never-ending war and steady job losses
to bank bailouts and our own sense of mortality, gets lined up on the fence for
Neil to take aim at. “I’m not givin’ up,” he mutters, semi-encouragingly. And
neither should any of us.

 

For that matter, Fork
in the Road
also scans a bit like Greendale,
its topicality easy to envision being translated to a theater or screen
production, a kind of birth-death-revival-of-the-American-dream story complete
with big set pieces involving automotive and highway iconography. There’s even
a hero built into the narrative here, the so-called “motorhead messiah” named
“Johnny Magic” (from the song of the same name) who swoops in from Wichita and saves America from its dependence on
foreign oil. Somethin’ like that.

 

At any rate, you can probably tell I like a lot of Fork in the Road, and that I also want to like all of it. But I can’t. Chief among my complaints: an unfortunate
excess of tossed-off lyrics with awkward syntax and ill-fitting rhythmic
schemes, plus a plethora of outright clichés. One sample, from “When Worlds
Collide”: “Floating along down the Rio Grande/ Coca-Cola
right in my hand/ In the Promised Land…”
Sure, it paints a visual image,
but what’s intended to convey that feeling of hurtling down Route 66
unencumbered by life’s vicissitudes is more cringe-inducing than carefree. And
from “Hit the Road”: “Out on the freeway
it’s the middle of the commute/ Bumper to bumper in a giant cloud of fumes/
From city to city everyone is on the move/ Trying to find the energy to stay in
the groove.”
Ouch. Did he really say “stay in the groove”?

 

The other thing that undermines some of the material is an
overreliance on group harmony vocals that comment on or talk back to, Greek
chorus style, Young’s verse narratives. In the chunky blues-rocker “Hit the
Road,” said chorus is heard somewhat naggingly going, “let’s hit the road/ and
go to town”; for “Fuel Line” the chant “keep fillin’ that fuel line, keep
fillin’ that ol’ fuel line” may have been intended to have a work-gang quality,
but it comes off like Barney reminding the kids to brush their teeth every
morning; “Johnny Magic” features the titular namecheck repeated ad infinitum to
no discernible effect (and, unintentionally or not, it carries odd echoes of
the “Johnny Rotten” mantra from “Hey Hey, My My [Into the Black]”).

 

Fork in the Road swings back and forth this way, with one song really grabbing you by the neck
even as Neil is throttling the neck of his axe, followed by another song that
makes you wish the album came with a companion disc of instrumental versions. But
then, arriving at about the 30 minute mark as track nine, out of 39 minutes and
ten tracks total, is the aforementioned “Light A Candle,” and a huge sense of
relaxation just washes over you. It’s hard not to think that maybe that’s the
overall effect Neil was going for here, to induce a bit of teeth-gritting
tension (mirroring the same tension going on currently in our society,
perhaps?) in the listener, then kick in with the catharsis. So while, again, I
still feel the record’s a bit over the top, I can live with it during the here
and now, and I may even return to it from time to time. It’s Neil Young, after
all, and that’s usually good enough for me.

 

 

 

[See also: Neil
Young’s Sugar Mountain:
Live at Canterbury
House 1968
.
]

 

 

 

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