Saturday, May 06, 2006

Kat's Korner: Neil Young's Living With War -- key word "Living"

Kat: Thank God for Neil Young. He's the first one to give us what we've all been wanting. The one that takes on the Bully Boy.

You buy that crap in the previous paragraph? Sometimes rewritten history is enough to turn you off reality. For instance, revisionist history doesn't note that Neil Young was quite happy to support the Patriot Act at a time when artists like Rickie Lee Jones were raising their voices. Rickie Lee took on the Bully Boy. So did Green Day. So did Pearl Jam (in the past and on their new self-titled CD). And of course Bright Eyes, the Rolling Stones, Cowboy Junkies and many more. In terms of a sense of how America's changed, you need only listen to Tori Amos' Scarlet's Walk to hear a journey across an America rotting from above. Those artists are far from the only ones who have spent time among the living in the last six years.

Is this just another case of White Male Boomer soaking up all the credit others have earned? If this is the case, accepting that myth means overlooking John Fogerty's Deja Vu All Over Again. Guess Fogerty came out swinging too soon? Or someone didn't take their ginco biloba?

So Neil Young's not the first. I think we've established that.

The album?

It's got a lot of things going for it.

Neil Young's pissed off. He's usually more interesting when he's pissed off. ("Helpless" not withstanding.) He's rocking with the kind of noise he hasn't kicked up in some time. Though he's arriving late to the party, he's making quite an entrance.

Living With War is the name of the album. You can currently listen to it in full online.

"After the Garden" is the first track. It's a strong track to kick off the album and you may think it's your favorite.

Won't need no shadow man
Running the government
Won't need no stinking war
Won't need no hair cut
Won't need no shoe shine
After the garden is gone

It features some strong drum work and Yong's lamenting in a manner that suits his voice. The strong drum work is actually a hallmark throughout. Muscially, it rocks better than the best tracks on Sleeps With Angels.

"Living With War" (title track) is next up and it may be time to reconsider your favorite song.

I take a holy vow
To never kill again
To never kill again
And try to remember PEACE

What makes this song for me? Two things: again the drums and the vocals. The vocals sometimes seem to chant and sometimes seem to sing. If that's Young and only Young via overdubs, I'd be surprised but he's been seriously messing around in the studio since the eighties, so who knows?

The song's about how "we kill and we're killed again" as we live with war (in our hearts) day after day. The theme will be carried throughout the album.

"Restless Consumer" is Young's "The Ghost of Tom Joad." Which is actually a good reference not just for the song. Springsteen hangs over the album. Check the musical similarities between "Living With War" and Springsteen's "Working On The Highway." Or between Springsteen's "No Retreat, No Surrender" which "Families" owes a musical debt to. (Corey Hart's "No Surrender" already owes Springsteen a lyrical debt.) Young mixes it up a bit by borrowing from the melody of Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" for "Flags of Freedom."

That's not nitpicking. Most songs and artists borrow. (It's outright theft that causes problems.)
He's even borrowing musically from his own work for "Roger and Out."

So what have we got here?

He has the most talked about album of his career. Whether he decided to allow people to listen to the album online to force the release (as some rumors say) or to get his songs out quickly, it's worked. There's an interest in his work, an excitement, that's not been present for some time.

At my local Tower, I asked how his catalogue was selling. I was told a number of people have been coming in asking for Living With War and that his Greatest Hits collection has shown a considerable increase in sales. (Living With War can be purchased as a download currently. It hits stores May 8th.)

It was a smart move. Not just in terms of marketing. What he's done is force everyone interested to basically act like a reviewer in the seventies with limited access to an upcoming release. You can listen. Under his conditions. Which means you listen from start to finish (unless you stop the stream). There's no option of picking the track you want to hear (or going back to one when it's finished playing). You hear the entire album in order.

All ten tracks. It's a concept album and the tenth track only works on the first few listens. (It's "America The Beautiful.") It provides the "light" at the end of the tunnel. Whether or not it's "cinematic," it will be the track that has you reaching for the remote in a few months. It's a traditional arrangement and what might have served the album better is a radical reworking of the song such as what Tori Amos did to Young's "Heart of Gold" on Strange Little Girls. Tori's version of "Happiness is a Warm Gun" appears to have had an impact on Young's "Let's Impeach the President."

Lopping off the "light" (final track), you've got Young's strongest album since the seventies. The man who cheered on the Patriot Act (and war with "Let's Roll"); the man who, let's be honest, had nothing to say for years, finally has something to say. There's none of the insulting point of view that marred Sleeps With Angels (where Young truly felt he had went "to heaven" which was apparently defined by a "Trans Am" and a 'cheery' view of the homeless). He's back among the living.

The vocal sneer (sometimes snarl) has allowed him to get away with a great deal over the last two decades. But nothing's been able to rescue his lyrics for some time. As he's repeatedly attempted to play the cowboy, it's been less and less a return the early highs of CSNY and more like Glenn Frey-lite. Pissed off has frequently led to vocals and music that almost saved songs with lyrics that many couldn't relate to. (Unless you, too, were a millionaire looking for a 'Purchase of Gold' -- frequently taking home a "Piece of Crap" or not.)

Neil Young came back down to earth lyrically. Music needs him, we need him. This is a brave album for any number of reasons including theme. But what may be most brave is the refusal to work and rework the songs (there's a reason David Geffen once sued him). There are nods to the work of Springsteen and Amos. The heart may not be gold but it's pumping. So much so that no one need turn to the sixites to give him a shout out (as he does to the year 1963 to shout out to Dylan in "Flags of Freedom" -- sad but true, you do have to go that far back to shout out to Dylan).

May 8th the album comes out in stores. I could download it now but I won't. I'll wait until then and purchase it. I've listened to it repeatedly online. That hasn't weakened my desire to own Living With War which is probably the highest compliment you can give music these days. I'm not sure how it will fare up against Ben Harper's incredible Both Sides of the Gun on my own stereo but, hopefully, they can live side by side, if not in perfect harmony.