That wouldn’t be a bad thing, except that for a protest song to be effective, it must be as catchy as it is precise, while also demonstrating a universal appeal. Although The Visitor, recorded with his new pals Promise Of The Real, isn’t as monotonous as The Monsanto Years, he still struggles with getting his message across without sounding like a cranky old man. (In case it’s not obvious, the obsession this time is saving the planet from Donald Trump.)
Another barrier would be the overall sound. The band has been praised for their ease in accompanying Neil on a level beloved by fans of the Crazy Horse collaborations. But while that trio was sloppy to begin with, Promise Of The Real adds another guitar player, conga percussion, and sometimes keyboards to the soup, making everything sound like it was recorded from the other end of a theater. And in addition to his pump organ, many of the songs prominently feature what sounds like a toy piano. (As for his voice, he continually works outside what’s left of his range.)
The protest songs tend to follow the Greendale approach of chanted vocals with Neil barking over the top, usually around a catchphrase that would be below Graham Nash. “Already Great” isn’t too bad, but should be faded before the “whose street” chant dubbed onto the end. “Fly By Night Deal” doesn’t add much, but at least it’s over quickly. Sporting classic Neil solos, “Stand Tall” is a direct descendant, musically and thematically, of “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?” and “Let’s Impeach The President”, so it sounds familiar, but the soundbites of talking heads on the news channels mar the track. “Diggin’ A Hole” and “When Bad Got Good” are a pair of plodding trash-rockers that make “T-Bone” seem like a word of genius, but if anything, they elevate “Children Of Destiny”. When premiered the previous Independence Day, it seemed alternately overblown and treacly, but it’s more cohesive, and welcome, in this context.
At least he varies the program somewhat. “Almost Always” is built around the main riff from “Unknown Legend”, and more gently airs his concerns about everything. “Change Of Heart” is even more gentle, with almost stream of consciousness words, and ending on a note of hope. The strangest track by far is “Carnival”, in which he channels Tom Waits via a mariachi backdrop in a demented vision, every now and then returning to his own voice for three bridges. At over ten minutes, “Forever” takes patience, particularly when he strains for the high notes, but it spreads a sense of calm that ties the album together at the end.
Few people in his employ would be reckless enough to challenge him, and it’s not Neil’s fault that some of his most reliable collaborators have gone to that recording studio in the sky. Still, it’s inevitable that The Visitor will be unfavorably compared to his earlier, classic work—especially given that the long-promised Archives was transformed from a physical format to an streaming Internet model the same day this album was released.
Neil Young + Promise Of The Real The Visitor (2017)—3