With his heart on his sleeve, can Neil Young’s latest, Peace Trail, find the beat?
Neil Young’s latest album, Peace Trail, came out last Friday and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Graded along the same curve that many of his fellow geriatric cotemporaries often crash and burn a mixed bag is not without its mixed blessings.
Young has been absolutely on a tear as of late with Peace Trail serving as the artist’s 37th studio release. Sans his usual backing band, Crazy Horse, Young does much of the heavy lifting with only Paul Bushnell on bass and Jefferson Airplane legend, Jim Keltner, behind the drums. The title track, even with its pace leashed, hearkens to the best of Young’s dichotomous crunchy falsettos. The guitar licks on the deceptively sleepy/raucous “Can’t Stop Workin’” are certainly no “Cowgirl in the Sand” but are undeniably fun and possess just enough of Young’s DNA to make it work. This same effect is failed later in the album in the subpar track, “Texas Rangers”. While tracks like “Glass Accident” may get support from familiar distorted power cords and a workmanlike performance by Keltner to carry them along, many of the arrangements remain sparse and are recorded without much enthusiasm. Bushnell was quoted in The Sun that “we [recorded] the ten tracks over four days. Most of them were recorded on the first or second take.” Unfortunately, the brevity of their sessions is clear.
Part of Peace Trail’s appeal is its timeliness. Lyrics like “There’s a battle raging on a sacred land. Our brothers and sisters have to take stand” in “Indian Givers” reference the continued struggle occurring in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Unfortunately, Peace Trail’s relevance is its own undoing as many of the tracks sound underdeveloped and rushed. The expedited production leaves its focus fleeting and superficial. The brief snatches of guitar solos that snuck onto the album often sound confused whether they are lazy guitar licks or an overworked harmonica on steroids. The ten short tracks that compose the album lack the trademark bite with which Young once challenged the powers that be.
The bluesy precision on “Show Me” is subdued and largely acoustic. While not the tone some may first associated with Young, it remains far and away the album’s most accomplished single. In breathy call and response delivery Young asks, “Do you see people’s lives being lost on the sacred land. On the battle over water being fought on a baby’s hand? … When the women of the world are free to stand up for themselves and the promises made stop gathering dust on the shelf” only to challenge himself with the heartrending cynicism of the following line, “…then show me.” Here, Young sings to larger issues of corruption, misogyny, and racism. The effect proves more timeless than focusing an album on a single issue like his recent well-intentioned but less-than-listenable, The Monsanto Years.
The closing track, “My New Robot”, remains absolutely cringe-inducing. Young has always straddled the line between wizened sage and an old man trying in vain to program some new fangled electronic device. It’s a line Young has been best served by avoiding entirely- the less remembered of his 1982 release, Trans, the better. Namedropping “Amazon.com” in lyrics interpolated with random computerized command prompts in 2016 makes it sound like a song from 1990 trying to imagine some technocratic dystopian future of 2000. While making a passing attempt at wistful nostalgia, the laconic and vocoder-assisted “My Pledge” suffers from more time-displaced ennui, referencing Jimi Hendrix and the crash that killed Big Bopper and Buddy Holly before meandering to an end.
Something can be said for avoiding the overworked studio productions that contemporaries like Bob Dylan have sleepwalked through for the past twenty years. Unlike the Rolling Stones’ recent Blue and Lonesome, Young’s Peace Trail is not a self-absorbed vanity project. While the project will not prove Young’s most inspired, either lyrically or instrumentally, no one can deny the album its authenticity. Young has never shied from wearing his heart on sleeve and it is on full display throughout Peace Trail for better and for worse.