The power of protest on Neil Young’s ‘Peace Trail’
Neil Young’s music has had a political bent for decades — the Kent State elegy “Ohio,” the fist-raising anti-Bush I anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World,” last year’s broadside against agriculture giant Monsanto “The Monsanto Years.” On his 38th album, the Canadian shredder-songwriter strips down and takes aim at the current world’s ailments, while still offering a ray of hope via the power of his songs; “I see the same old signs/ but something new is growing,” he muses over the shuffling beat of the title track.
Young’s distinctive paper-thin voice guides the album, quivering with import and plainspoken lyrics that have clearly been thrumming inside him for a while. On “Indian Givers,” he takes aim at the chronic mistreatment of Native Americans; its video, unveiled in September, was released as a show of support with the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. (“Show Me,” which creeps along on a delicate riff and a lazy-day bassline, touches on this as well.) The shambolic “John Oaks” is a folk ballad focused on a farmer who’s been slowly radicalized while watching the shoddy treatment received by his workers; Young was one of the founders of Farm Aid, the long-running concert series benefiting family farmers. “Glass Accident,” one of the few tracks to focus on more personal matters, is drenched in regret and reverb.
“Peace Trail” is a hard record to get a hold of at times. The songs are so bare-bones — and, at times, meandering — that it feels a bit tossed-off. (Young wrote and recorded the album at rock guru Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios over a weeklong span; “I gave up a lot of disciplines on this record,” he told the Los Angeles Times.) Sometimes the songs suffer, particularly when the arrangements go beyond the guitar-drums-bass setup. The generational lament “My Pledge,” where Young is shadowed by what sounds like his Auto-Tuned ghost, doesn’t quite land, while “My New Robot,” a harmonica-accented commentary on technology’s encroachments on humanity, cedes vocal duties midway through to virtual siblings of Siri and Alexa in a commentary that works better conceptually than it does on record. That Young can make such an idiosyncratic, pointed piece of mass-produced art, though, is a testament to his status as a rock-music beacon who can, possibly, lead his fellow musicians — peers and followers — to a place where they raise their voices as well.
ESSENTIAL: “Glass Accident”