An Icon With No Quit
Few artists who’ve been around for as long as Neil Young have matched his combined staying power and output. His legendary career has spawned more than three dozen records, and his signature voice and signature sound are as identifiable with some of the most legendary music of the 1960s and 1970s. And he keeps. On. Going.
Young’s 21st century career, by most standards, is stronger than some of his contemporaries, as he unfurls his political leanings and humanistic musings out into the world. But his latest release, the mellow, meandering Peace Trail isn’t as much as a call to action as it a series of observations, told in an offbeat way, where Young’s words are the standout act.
The opening title track is the strongest and most memorable, kicking off with a burst of static and a crunchy guitar line before Young chimes in with his most recognizable vocals. Layer upon layer of instruments build a collective, earthy sound, with auxiliary aplenty and thumping drums. “I think I’ll hit the peace trail,” he sings after pledging not to give up. He sees that “something new is growing.” It’s an opening salvo that perfectly tells the listener where Young is at as an activist and cultural commentator, a theme that will resurface throughout the record in his own special way.
He talks about his dedication on “Can’t Stop Working,” a groovy track with a light beat that has a sparser tone than its predecessor. Young toys with the idea of media overload and conspiracy on “Texas Rangers,” as he sings “watch what you don’t see/on the TV/when they hide the truth,” the kind of line that’s direct and succinct. Musically, these songs stick to the same recipe, with short bursts of verses, harmonica aplenty and Young’s almost droopy-drawl. He and his band have chemistry, no doubt, or maybe the players are just following his lead.
It’s hard not to think about the recent protests at the Dakota Access Pipeline listening to “Indian Givers” when he sings about “a battle brewing on the sacred lands,” but his criticisms of our times are more vague and broad: “we’re all here together fighting poison water/standing against the evil way/that’s what we have at the end of days.” It’s the kind of refrain that prove Young has mastered succinct storytelling, but maybe at the expense of something greater as he churns out song after song. Then again, for an artist who has put out as many memorable and legendary records (please go listen to “Harvest Moon” in full if you haven’t, or the entire CSNY catalog), maybe Young’s earned the right to just write and play whatever comes to his artistic mind.
For what it lacks in depth and surprise, it makes up for in recording quality. Most of the tracks exist in a mid-tempo, guitar-driven space. Songs like “John Oaks” and others features a storytelling, sing-song approach, with Young narrating to a mellow backdrop. It’s not an unlikable setting—and it feels quite hippies-around-a-campfire—but it’s not necessarily going to earn Young the accolades of today’s picky and demanding listeners. It is doubtful that he cares.
Young doesn’t pine for the past, instead he embraces the future, most notably on the somewhat silly “My New Robot.” It’s a fun little ditty and totally unexpected as Young pairs his signature acoustic stylings with a vocoder as he sings about a robot straight out of the box from Amazon. Is there a metaphor here? Maybe, but maybe not—given the acute digital reliance of most of our culture, and given Young’s penchant to experiment (read up on his Pono sound invention, if only to realize the extent of his creativity) releasing a song about a robot might be exactly what he needed to express, and it ends the album on a sunnier note than the rest of its parts.
Peace Trail is an easy listen, even with its cultural commentary and aging icon’s warble. Young’s obviously liberal politics color the album’s stories as much as his fingers do, and he’s let them dawdle and explore and find new ways to come together on his seemingly never-ending journey of music-making. But its occasional quirks and lack of highlights compared to his other works will likely leave critics and longtime fans wishing it offered more—it’s as if Young no longer has a filter for what he wants to put out. But maybe he never had one in the first place. Maybe that’s what makes him great.