Neil Young - Living with War

2006-10-04 13:33
There’s something undeniably cool about protest music. The anti-war folk and psychedelic rock that emerged in the late 60s helped define the hippie generation, which played no small part in pressurising the US government to end the war in Vietnam.

A decade later, punk rock’s rejection of all forms of authority and conformity showed the youth that they didn’t have to be like their parents to be successful in life. Back home in South Africa, Shifty Records took the bull by the horns and spearheaded the boerepunk movement, releasing albums by outspoken anti-apartheid artists like Koos Kombuis, James Philips and Johannes Kerkorrel en Die Gereformeerde Blues Band. Their music was passionate, relevant, and a total blast.

But in the last decade or so, there hasn’t really been much protest music to speak of. This seems surprising, given the world we live in and the leaders who have weaselled their way into running it. We have wars, corruption, AIDS and global warming, but the best mainstream music can give us is some junior librarian who wishes she was a punk rocker, and a host of bands who seem to be doing nothing more than trying to revive the 80s, easily the most vacuous, vain and frankly embarrassing decade in the history of humankind (if you feel inclined to argue that point, you probably weren’t there the first time round). The only commercial act to tackle 21st-century stupidity head-on thus far has been Green Day, who, granted, may be about as politically astute as a hand puppet without the hand, but at least they have the guts and the inclination to say something.

Luckily we also have a few dinosaurs from the good old days who remember what it was like when apathy and conformity was frowned upon, and, after Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young is the second older rocker to release a full-on protest record. Musically, it’s Young in Ragged Glory mode: washes of distorted grungy guitar dilute the hippie element of Young’s mainstream folk-rock. A 100-person choir is used, making the whole thing sound like a protest rally.

Lyrically, Young doesn’t bother with subtlety or metaphor. Tracks like “Let’s Impeach the President” and the title track are rousing, pull-no-punches and are anthems against war and the Bush administration. The problem is that Young is maybe a bit too specific and a bit too American to appeal to listeners outside his country’s borders. “Shock and Awe”, for example, is named after the military operation that started the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It’s sometimes difficult to relate.

But positively alienating is the underlying patriotism. The lyrics of “Flags of Freedom” are almost as nauseating as the title suggests, as are those of “Looking for a Leader”: “Looking for a leader / To bring our country home / Reunite the red, white and blue / Before it turns to stone”.

Listening here in South Africa, it might be hard to sympathise with a man born white and talented in the world’s most powerful country. And, if you’re still listening, the album’s closer, a reverent rendition of “America the Beautiful”, will have you diving for the stop button. Non-Americans should never have to endure their patriotism. It’s inhuman.

But American fans are going to love this, and good for them. Hopefully, it’ll help remind some of them to get up off their lazy urban behinds and vote for the good guy next time round. On those grounds alone, this album gets one extra star.

-Chris McEvoy

What other reviewers said: Preaching to the choir with a choir saves Young's complaints about cable news, photo-ops, and pharmaceutical ads from succumbing to faded-hippie fogeyism.
- Pitchfork

Young hasn't sounded this fired up in years.
- Entertainment Weekly

Really, what's to be gained from simplistic sloganeering like, "We don't need no more lies!”
- New Musical Express

Protest music makes a come back with this very frank anti-Bush, yet patriotic CD from Neil Young

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warren 2006/10/05 12:50 PM
USA 2day America today is in the same state of self delusion that "The British Empire" was in, in the '30's.
simon 2006/10/05 6:39 PM
Neil young rocks neil young is one of the best music influences long live young!!!!!!!!!!!!
doug 2006/10/11 6:59 AM
living with war look at Neil Youngs bank account and then look at your own before you critisize him!
Kerry 2006/10/11 3:35 PM
Doug, are you serious? Neil's got more money so the reviewer can't make any kind of well thought out criticism of him?! I'm guessing Hitler had more money in Swiss bank accounts than any of us and I'm pretty sure he's open to a little criticism...
Cow 2006/10/23 2:20 PM
Doug... I'd respond to Doug here but I haven't seen his bank account.
Jean 2006/10/23 2:23 PM
No protest music? You say there hasn't been much protest music? Got to say, that kind of ignores a lot of jazz / hip hop and rap, which is very protest oriented. Maybe folk, country and rock have been lazy but there's no shortage of protest elsewhere.
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