Neil Young‘s Living with War (Reprise) proves unequivocally that the man dubbed the godfather of grunge also is the godfather of the protest song.
While other socially aware artists, such as Bob Dylan, have grown more introspective and less political, Young has always had his radar tuned to the political landscape. Not that Young can’t be introspective when he wants to — 2005’s Prairie Wind is perhaps his most personal statement to date. But Young has shifted gears in 2006, and the result is an incendiary statement on the current political atmosphere.
The stage for Living With War was set up quickly and with much urgency. Recorded, mixed and mastered earlier this year in 21 days (March 29-April 17). This collection of vehement protest songs was released via the Internet on May 2, preceding by two days the 36th anniversary of the National Guard shootings of students at Kent State University — an event immortalized in Young’s “Ohio,” one of the defining moments in the rock ‘n’ roll protest era.
Three years into the war in Iraq, and one year removed from brain surgery to remove a life-threatening aneurysm, Young has embarked on a mission to rock the nation’s conscience with one of the most meaningful albums of his career. It may not be his best, but it has a raw zeitgeist quality that seeks to galvanize public opinion on the war.
None of the songs on Living With War have the jagged-edge power of the opening to 1970’s “Ohio,” the guitar notes of which sound like shrapnel cutting through the air. The new album’s opening track, “After the Garden,” resonates with lost innocence, harking back to the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song “Woodstock” (written by Joni Mitchell) that contains the refrain “got to get ourselves back to the garden.” In this new song, Young asks, “What would people do after the garden is gone?” and the prospect of the society going down the tubes is not so much a concern, but an inevitability. It’s one of the best songs on the album.
But the chorus of “don’t need no more lies” on “The Restless Consumer” just doesn’t measure up to the refrain “four dead in Ohio,” even though the song is a bitter indictment of the misspent funds going to fuel the war as citizens back home are dying for lack of medical care. Other tracks, such as “Let’s Impeach the President,” “Shock and Awe” and “Lookin’ for a Leader,” sound obvious and heavy-handed, but there are enough ingredients in the mix to make the songs compelling (including some telling sound bites from the president).
The concluding number, Young’s arrangement of “America the Beautiful” with a 100-member chorus, is tinged with irony. This is a difficult war to find poetry in. During the Vietnam War, there was a sense in the music of the time that the country’s innocence was being lost. It was still shocking to find back then that the government lied to its citizens. Now it just seems like more of the same.
One of the few artists/musicians around not afraid to embrace the past, present and future, Young has been through a series of peaks in his career with not very many sustained valleys. So far this century, he has produced some of his finest, most consistent work — a dedicated musician who also is an activist, an artist who for years has refused commercial endorsements. Young cannot be bought, which only makes his art pure and more palatable, and his message one to be taken seriously.
— By Donald Gavron