Friday, 9 December 2016

Neil Young - Peace Trail, album review

Dialectic vs Didactic

Where The Rolling Stones have presented us with a Christmas album Blue and Lonesome that resonates with the festive spirit of capitalism – though acknowledging its wonderful authentic blues and genuine return to roots – Neil Young gives us a pure gift of Peace Trail wrapped in a ribbon of simple, noble endeavour.

Before reviewing, I will comment on one other review of Young’s album that I read today, and I do like to read around when I too am commenting. Andy Gill, writing for The Independent, doesn’t like it very much, calling it self-parody, with a set of desultory peacenik songs. That’s fine, by the way, because it is opinion and each is entitled, but I was nonetheless bemused by such a dismissive summation by someone who in another assessment in his set of reviews describes John Legend’s latest as musically in the dialectic between comforting familiarity and exploratory urges. You see, I think one could take the Legend line and ascribe it more accurately to the actual legend Young, though it would seem rather pretentious in applying to his simpler take on a truly long-established familiarity as well as a performer proven to experiment and push against boundaries and expectations.

But that’s just opinion. The songs on Peace Trail are certainly more folk than rock, and I’d say languid rather than ‘desultory’, but that’s just…well, you know. The title track is probably the most Young-ish, and the most melodic as well as developed as such in this set of ten tracks. It is a sweet melody, and the use of an auto-tuned chorus is a delightful experiment in producing a sound quite contrary to the lo-lo-fi of his other demonstrative back-to-basics material. The electric guitar work here is also classic Young, and the last we will hear of this.

Afterwards, there is a simplicity that is also familiar in the other nine tracks, most blues-based and laid bare, so to speak, by the drumming of Jim Keltner. Second Can’t Stop Working seems to be an anthem for this 71 year old’s continued gigging and recording output, this album his 37th, probably, and the super-fuzzed harmonica outbursts are probably not to be called ‘experimental’ but they certainly disrupt surprisingly, and superbly, and not in a desultory way, but….

Third Indian Givers gives it away in the title with its peacenik narrative about Native Americans, without having to say so that deliberately, and this is a folk blues that doesn’t exactly soar, but the fuzzed harp does shout at the end, and Keltner’s drums roll us all the way to the end. Fourth Show Me follows the same theme and has a neat little bass line for this blues, provided by Paul Bushnell. I know, the history of protest songs has proven that not a whole lot has been achieved over the many years of their didactics, but that doesn’t stop the noble urge. Texas Rangers is, yes, quite ramshackle, apparently an ad lib – the drums seeming to follow one step behind the existentialism – but it is a bit of a musical hoot. Ok, not the greatest. Sixth Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders does, however, take peacenik satire to a great height, excusing the pun, and you know that Young isn’t aiming for [here it comes again] high art, but his aim is sure and true in consistently attacking and mocking the real and dangerously ‘simplistic’ [another word Gill uses in his Young review] realities of people’s paranoias and prejudices and hatreds.

John Oats is another in the vein of Texas Rangers but also another in the vein of caring and commenting. But yes again, not the greatest. Eighth My Pledge is so much bittersweet fun, auto-tuning being used again to make its more complex points about music as well as modern living and history. The album closes on My New Robot which again, I think, presents Young’s genuine urge to experiment, and comically so – though always the inherent warning of a world gone weird – with this robotic voiced take on an Amazon-gizmo-inspired new world order.

John Legend’s latest, titled Darkness and Light – which ought to be a serious metaphor, but I don’t know – is for me formulaic rather than experimental, its dialectic no more that the remote possibility of its title. Production values are superior, over content; auto-tuning, I would guess, is a norm rather than a device; there is a distorted-effects chorus on the banal, really, Love Me Now instead of an actually played fuzzfizzed harmonica, and I hear the echo of many others rather than, for example, Young echoing Young, a consistency that has lasted and continues. But that is just opinion. Neither here nor there. 

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