Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Neil Young 36: Living With War

Neil had barely begun promoting the previous autumn’s Prairie Wind (and accompanying Heart Of Gold concert film) when he quickly recorded and released Living With War. These nine spontaneous, angry songs immediately divided fans and critics over both the quality of the music and the subject matter. It wasn’t the first time he’d reacted to a situation with a protest song, as demonstrated by “Ohio”, “War Song” and “Let’s Roll”. Now, however, he had the Internet and social networking to help do his publicity. The songs were recorded in the space of a week, and released to radio, streaming and stores a month later. Amazingly, his label was behind it, and the occasion of its debut to corporate made it to CNN.
It’s not like he set out to piss anyone off; if someone else had written these songs, he said, he wouldn’t have had to, but as nobody was stepping up, he did. Which brings us to the big question: how are the songs, anyway?
Anyone expecting the next “We Shall Overcome”, “Blowin’ In The Wind” or even “Ohio” will be disappointed. Most of the songs use the same chord sequences on a virtual loop, and many of the lyrics fall back on “don’t need no” lists. To his credit, many of the songs are less knee-jerk rants against the Bush administration, but actually trying to get in the heads of veterans, current soldiers and the families left behind.
“After The Garden” is a strong start, with a decent chorus and intricate (for Neil) guitar interlude. The title track displays the shortcomings of the album via the trumpet and choir accompaniment that demonstrate his thin voice and elementary-school approach. “The Restless Consumer” is the third song in a row built around “don’t need no” lyrics, and unfortunately leaves him too angry to sing properly. A similar relentless tempo and vocal anchors “Shock And Awe”, which attempts to put recent history in perspective. “Families” keeps the same pace, but at least provides a major key and a more hopeful lyric.
Thinking back to an earlier war, “Flags Of Freedom” namechecks Bob Dylan, and could have been written forty years earlier, except for the part about headphones and flat-screen TVs. The song that naturally got the most attention was “Let’s Impeach The President”, which pretty much spells out the indictment, complete with juxtaposed soundbites right out of the Michael Moore school of editing. “Lookin’ For A Leader” attempts to offer another solution, reminding us that government isn’t just about politics, and even predicting the ascent of Barack Obama. A imaginary conversation between the living and the dead, “Roger And Out” is one of the few songs that sits easily outside the concept. Except for one instrumental bridge, it sounds a little too much like “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. Finally, an a cappella “America The Beautiful”, performed by the choir, pointedly closes the program.
Sonically, it’s dripping with aggravation, Neil’s corrosive guitar illustrating the carnage. True to a Volume Dealers production, the simple rhythm section consists of Rick Rosas and Chad Cromwell, playing a lot louder than they did on Prairie Wind. (Living With War: In The Beginning appeared at year’s end, featuring the pre-choral mixes of the album—minus, of course, “America The Beautiful”—and a companion DVD consisting of many of the clips available streaming at his Living With War Today website.)

Neil felt strongly enough about the songs and the cause to convince Crosby, Stills & Nash to join him for a tour, documented in the CSNY/Déjà Vu documentary and accompanying album. They were probably glad to have the work, and Graham happily sang along with all of Neil’s angry lyrics. Stills and Crosby sound more ragged than ever, and interestingly are shown on the cover in ‘60s photos as opposed to the current shots of the other two. The mood of the tour is accurately displayed by the ramshackle take on “Military Madness” and the boos following “Let’s Impeach The President”. (For Neil’s part, he never did quite figure out how to pronounce “steroids”.) A piano version of “Living With War” bookends the set, unfortunately dressed up with synth strings.

Neil Young Living With War (2006)—3
Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young CSNY/Déjà Vu Live (2008)—

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