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May 2, 2006

Neil Young falls short of classic protest rock on Living With War

Neil Young’s “Ohio” (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/ We’re finally on our own/ This summer I hear the drumming/ Four dead in Ohio”) was a powerful musical response to the Kent State Shootings on May 4, 1970. Over 35 years have passed since his insight jumped from the pen to the page. In a recent burst of creative vigor spanning two weeks, Neil Young reassured the public that his days of protest are far from over. Scheduled for release on May 8, Young’s latest album, Living With War, is a total indictment of the Bush Administration—and, more precisely, the War in Iraq. Just eighth months after the release of the much mellower Prairie Wind, Young has retuned to his electric milieu. Taking full advantage of the 21st century, songs have been available to stream on Young’s official website since Friday, April 28.

Many times it is difficult to assess the immediate impact of a purely political album. While Living With War is an album with a heavy dose of passion, it partially comes across as an unfocused rant. Such passion often has divisive results: it galvanizes some and instantly turns off others. That is the risk artists take when forming political stances. Young’s own stances have varied over the decades. In such a polarized political climate—where Bush’s numbers remain in the toilet—calling a song “Impeach The President” may not be that bold of a risk.

“Impeach The President” is both the bluntest and the weakest track on Living With War. In the middle of the track, snippets from Bush’s speeches are played as Young sings the repetitive and rather predictable lyrics—“flip, flop”—over and over again. There is no subtlety here, and such lyrics only remind me of Young’s own past statements. Young came out in full support of President Bush and the Patriot Act after September 11, 2001—penning the song “Let’s Roll” about United Flight 93 in the process. Now, in a political climate much different than 2001, Young has both publicly and musically changed his tune. Flip-flop? Just a thought.

Young’s brilliance has always been his ability to transform personal stories into songs that resonate universally. He relies on a visceral grittiness that often comes from tragedy. Following the deaths of a roadie and his band’s guitarist, Young recorded Tonight’s The Night, a perfect example of his genius. Living With War retains elements of grief on only one track. The most powerful song on the album—arguably the best—is, “Roger and Out.” Not just a typical attack on the president, “Roger and Out” tells the story of a soldier whose friend gave his life for his country. It is a somber song that introduces the listener to a surprisingly pensive Young, who is sadly absent on much of the album. It evokes a totally different mood from the rest of the album.

By merely recording a protest album, Young owes an inestimable debt to songsmiths like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. To his credit, Young directly pays homage to Dylan on “Flags of Freedom,” by referencing the musical iconoclast himself in the lyrics. The similarity of the lines “Flags of freedom flying” and “Chimes of freedom flashing” is no accident. Like so many, Young strives to be Dylan.

“After the Garden” and “Families” are other examples of solid tracks from Living With War. Musically, much of the album is derivative, excluding “Roger and Out.” Lyrically and subject-wise, Living With War is rather repetitive. The album closes with an a cappella version of “America the Beautiful” in which Young is backed by a 100-person choir, appearing self-righteous in an attempt to demonstrate his patriotism. One is naturally led to compare this to Simon and Garfunkel’s famous version of “Silent Night,” in which they sing the Christmas carol with a Walter Cronkite newscast in the background. That song is the best example of political savvy (and a lack of self-indulgence); it succeeds where Young’s overblown “America the Beautiful” fails.

Living With War is a mixed bag, full of passion, politics and polemics. Young illustrates that he cares deeply about major issues. Unfortunately, it lacks the anthemic qualities that defined previous Young masterpieces like “Ohio” and “Rockin’ In The Free World.” On the whole, Living With War simply articulates many feelings currently prevalent in the nation without finding real depth.

If Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are-A Changin’ is the quintessential political protest album, then Living With War falls a bit short. Unlike Dylan, Young’s stamp is not protest. Nostalgia and tragedy have always fueled his artistic fire. Despite the success of “Ohio” and the album Freedom, protesting is slightly outside of Young’s musical element. The greatest albums of his long and celebrated discography—Harvest, After the Goldrush, and Tonight’s the Night—have all focused on the individual, avoiding the blatantly political. Living With War will be a footnote to that career and should become a polarizing album for fans of the Canadian rocker.

We are all living with war. Neil Young is just singing about it.