In closing his introduction to Neil Young’s keynote speech at this year’s SXSW festival, Roland Swenson, after discussing Young’s storied 40 years of topical discourse and protest songs, proclaimed: “Mr. Young, If you can hear me back there, we need another song.” A month or so later, on Living With War, Young has obliged him ten times over. It’s an uncompromising record, like many throughout his career, and it furthers his reputation as one of the great unpredictable artists we’ve known. Admittedly, the legendary Canadian’s politics have stumbled through their share of questionable affiliations (both praising and lambasting Reagan and the elder Bush as well as issuing a post 9/11 call to arms) but regardless of these missteps, he’s once again made an incredibly strong record.
While major labels carefully churn out records with massive marketing campaigns, Young has managed to create something that doesn’t abide by industry standards. The record was written and recorded in nine days this April, and it’s already available to the public. Tack on the fact that Young’s last release, the Grammy nominated Prairie Wind, came out less than a year ago, and one begins to realize that there are few artists who would even be permitted to attempt such an ambitious schedule.
But here’s what really matters: At a time when even the venerable Dylan has dropped off his game, Young is as creative as ever. While this album still doesn’t welcome the scruffy hard rock of Crazy Horse back into the fold, it does represent a welcome return to form for a musician unwilling to settle into mellowness in his sixties. With almost no notice, Young assembled an understated accompanying trio, and he upped the ante by addressing the record’s heavy themes with an impressive chorus of 100 vocalists. The effect is disarming, and when they all chime in to deliver his lyrics on ‘Let’s Impeach the President,’ the effect is impossible to ignore. It’s a scathing indictment of all things Bush, with a singsong delivery that reinvents the universal melodies of Seeger and Ochs. For the rest of the record he continues to hit home with biting lines like “there is no mission accomplished here, just death to thousands,” and “Today’s the day our younger son is going off to war/fighting the age-old battle we sometimes won before.” Young writes from his own world, and these are simply his thoughts and observations from a specific moment in time. Still, he’s made himself a default voice for multitudes of the disheartened.
Living With War is far from subtle, and though some moments are a little hard to stomach, the record certainly gets its point across. Young’s stance is blatantly patriotic; his support for troops and the American standard of living are at the forefront, though his distaste for the current administration is what will likely be the focal point of any flak the record receives. If you haven’t read a newspaper in four years, don’t sweat it — all the highlights are here. Bush’s religion, corrupt officials, the Red/ Blue division of the 2004 elections, the decimation of New Orleans — all this and more is fodder for Young in his catchall protest anthems. It’s heady and a bit overblown, but the sheer volume of content speaks for itself, and the topics just keep flowing. Even the closing chorale rendition of ‘America the Beautiful’ comes across as a fitting and somberly touching final word on the issues at hand. The record doesn’t offer anything as timeless as ‘Ohio,’ ‘Rockin’ In the Free World,’ or a number of other brilliant singles created over his career, but as a whole it holds its own, ranking with some of his best records in the last 20 years.