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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Neil Young lets loose a war cry

We're counting the minutes until the release of Neil Young's most hard-hitting album in years. Finally, this Friday there'll be a soundtrack for our outrage. Sample lyrics are posted below so we can all get ready to sing along like one big happy fuming family. Young was actually an admirer of Ronald Reagan, so he's no radical pinko peacenik, but old Neil can't hack another minute of George Bush. I guess there's a line that no normal person will allow himself to cross. Thanks for being normal, Neil, and for the music, too. -hl

We met outside a bagel joint in north Toronto, then drove a few blocks to a quiet street where two strangers could sit in a big old Cadillac and listen to the car stereo in peace. Then Robert Young (Neil's brother) slipped a CD-ROM from a plain white sleeve and gave me a rare preview of the nine explosive new songs on his brother Neil Young's much-anticipated album, Living With War.

The disc was made in a hurry, recorded in three days on Neil Young's California ranch and another 12-hour session in a Los Angeles studio. I can hear the urgency in Young's singing, as if there's not a moment to lose when a great lie has spread over the land and only strong, sustained truth-telling can turn it back.

Living With War is a fierce, comprehensive indictment of the Bush administration and all its failures, at home and abroad, but it doesn't feel like an outsider's dissent. It's the work of someone who clearly identifies with the core values of ordinary Middle Americans who voted for Bush, who sent their sons and daughters to war, and who are beginning to feel betrayed.

Flags of Freedom, for example, starts like a proudly patriotic song from the days before the Vietnam War began to stain the self-image of the republic. Young depicts a parade of recruits marching off to war down the main street of their small town, church bells ringing and "the flags of freedom flying." But when the soldiers have passed, with parents and sisters watching, Young pointedly asks: "Have you seen the flags of freedom? / What colour are they now?" It would be hard to miss the sense of doubt and disappointment, made sharper by Young's allusion to a similar, more confident query at the end of The Star-Spangled Banner.

The disappointment turns into rage in Let's Impeach the President. This long impassioned outcry begins with a trumpet flourish from the Last Post and ends with a 100-voice chorus shouting Young's angry responses to numerous clips of Bush's own words about Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and the case for war in Iraq.

"Let's impeach the president for lying / and leading our country into war," Young hollers, "abusing all the power that we gave him / and shipping all our money out the door . . . Let's impeach the president for spying / on citizens inside their own homes / breaking every law in the country / tapping our computers and telephones."

The text alone can't convey the sense of gasping outrage in Young's singing
, and his forceful arrangements for guitar, bass, drums and sometimes trumpet. His electric guitar's gnarly, saturated tone has an almost drunken quality, as if it too were reeling from the great betrayal.

But the music throughout the album feels sparse and tightly controlled, as if these statements were too important to be gussied up with ornament. The trumpet, when it appears, does so only briefly, with a different character each time, evoking the sounds of a border town in Bush's native Texas (in Shock and Awe), or doubling the guitar melody like a quasi-human voice (in Living With War).

Likewise, the choir plays several roles, and offers much more than backing vocals. It's the sound of the people, whether represented as a church congregation (in the title song) or a chanting crowd of protesters (in Let's Impeach the President).

Mostly, it's a big-tent collection of ordinary citizens, which at the end of the album sings an a cappella version of America the Beautiful, recalling in a more robust key the final scene of Michael Cimino's devastating Vietnam film, The Deer Hunter.

The title song makes the most powerful use of core American themes and symbols, and the rhetoric of the religious right.
Both the melody and the lyrics ("I join the multitudes, I raise my hand in peace . . . I take a holy vow never to kill again") feel hymn-like, in spite of the song's rock idiom. The voices rise as Young inserts a line from The Star-Spangled Banner ("the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air") and it seems at first as if the reference is purely ironic. But he goes on with another line from the anthem, and suddenly the meaning is more ambivalent, more complicated by a sense of bedrock patriotism.

At bottom, this is a profoundly patriotic record. Its predominant theme is spoiled hopes, and the list is long, including hopes for a safe environment, for economic justice at home and abroad, for peace between nations. But a few songs make it clear that Young isn't finished with hoping. Looking for a Leader, which comes right after Let's Impeach the President, is an unvarnished call for a new authority figure who can right the wrong, clear out the corruption, and make the nation's symbols feel pure again. "Some one walks among us, and I hope he hears the call," Young sings, "Maybe it's a woman, or a black man after all."

Young supported Reagan, and was one of the first major rock musicians to lend support to the so-called war on terror, in his 2001 song Let's Roll. It would seem to be a challenge for Bush's allies to brush off his attacks on "the shadow man running the government." But the struggle is already skewed in their favour, because most of these songs probably won't make it on to American radio, which is heavily dominated by the ClearChannel empire. Those are the folks, you may remember, who yanked the Dixie Chicks from the airwaves after Natalie Maines dared to criticize the President in front of a microphone.

Young knows all about that, which is why this album will be streamed for free on his website for a week starting Friday, before a commercial release on Reprise/Warner. It's going to spread on-line, and on college radio, and by word of mouth. It's a media virus, and it's also Young's strongest record in years.


Sample lyrics from Neil Young's upcoming album, Living With War:

Back in the days of shock and awe

We came to liberate them all

History was the cruel judge of overconfidence

Back in the days of shock and awe

Back in the days of "mission accomplished"

Our chief was landing on the deck

The sun was setting on a golden photo-op

Back in the days of "mission accomplished"

-- from Shock and Awe

Don't need no Madison Avenue War

Don't need no more boxes I can't see

Covered in flags but I can't see them on TV

Don't need no more lies

-- from The Restless Consumer

Won't need no shadow man

Runnin' the government

Won't need no stinkin' WAR

Won't need no haircut

Won't need no shoeshine

After the garden is gone

-- from After the Garden

Lookin' for a leader

To bring our country home

Reunite the red white and blue

Before it turns to stone . . .

Yeah maybe it's Obama

But he thinks that he's too young

Maybe it's Colin Powell

To right what he's done wrong

-- from Lookin' for a Leader