Album Review: Neil Young – Peace Trail

By on Wednesday, 11th January 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

Header photo by Julie Gardner

peace-trail-extralarge_1479236489199Last summer, Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young released his eye-popping 37th album ‘Earth’, which he described as “a collection of 13 songs from throughout my life, songs I have written about living here on our planet together.” Though the songs themselves weren’t new, the recordings were. Captured while Young was on tour with The Promise of the Real, the live audio was mixed with overdubbed sounds to make a point about the artificial nature of our lives and the damage we’re causing to our planet.

Though he hails from Canada, Young has often used his artistic activism to weigh in on American political and social events. In a Rolling Stone interview around the release of ‘Earth’, he remarked “I vote with my mouth. That’s my way.” Young could easily have rested on his laurels following ‘Earth’, but instead he turned his attention to unfolding drama in the United States, speaking out once again with an album of original music titled ‘Peace Trail’.

Recorded at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-la Studios and co-produced by Young and John Hanlon, ‘Peace Trail’ is a mix of predictable acoustic folk rock and experimental synthetic sounds designed to provoke a specific and unsettling effect. Title track and album opener ‘Peace Trail’ is musically what you might expect from Young, with fuzzy guitars and folk-style tribal percussion, but its central lyric “I think I’ll hit the peace trail / take a trip back home to my old town / ‘cos everyone back there says / something new is growing” hints that change is afoot.

[youtube]https://youtu.be/_O1uQOpzvPQ[/youtube]

The opening lines of ‘Indian Givers’ are the centerpiece of the album, clearly speaking out against the construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline: “There’s a battle raging on the sacred land / our brothers and sisters had to take a stand / against us now for what we all been doing / on the sacred land there’s a battle brewing”. The rhyme might be a bit awkward but the sentiment is solidly stated, over a musical backdrop that combines Young’s blues rock with stark rhythms and austere harmonies more reminiscent of Native American traditional music. Young continues his humanist sermon with ‘Show Me’, a starkly simple arrangement of two-line verses and a repeated one-line chorus that challenges listeners with an ultimate vision: “when heaven on earth is improved by the hand of man / and people everywhere get together and join their hands / show me.”

From that point, the album takes a bit of a left turn. The discordant and rhythmically disjunct ‘Texas Rangers’ comes as a bit of a shock after the predictable folk rock of the previous songs. As jarring as the musical effect is, the lyrics are almost moreso: “Look, can you see things / when they show you / what they want you to know / watch what you don’t see / on the TV / when they hide the truth”. In similarly disturbing fashion, ’Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders’ explores the dark specters of racial and religious distrust among white Americans: “I think I know who to blame / it’s all those people with funny names / moving in to our neighborhood / how can I tell if they’re bad or good?”

[youtube]https://youtu.be/rkhyw3SJdFs[/youtube]

‘John Oaks’ goes back to familiar musical territory with a lengthy and detailed acoustic folk narrative about migrant workers and racial tensions. ‘My Pledge’ has a similar poetic structure, but a distinctly modern and synthetic arrangement of the vocal melodies. One particular stanza, “I’m lost in this new generation / left me behind it seems / listening to the shadow of Jimi Hendrix / ‘Purple Haze’, sounding like TV” seems markedly appropriate in that context. Young closes the album on a somewhat lighter note with ‘My New Robot’, though sinister undertones peek through the acoustic arrangement in a wide and weird array of computerised voices, and the song’s ending can only be described as alarmingly abrupt.

Neil Young is a legendary and prolific songwriter with a wide and established audience. On ‘Peace Trail’ he has once again used his craft as a vehicle for preaching his broad humanitarian social platform. The messages contained in its songs are deliberate and blunt, not particularly elegant, but in their style, very particular to Young as an artist. The real significance of the ‘Peace Trail’ comes in the fact that Young felt the need to make these statements publicly, and that, at this point in his career, he continues to find bold, inventive ways to keep awareness of political and social injustice at the forefront of our collective consciousness.

7/10

‘Peace Trail’, Neil Young’s second album of 2016 and 38th album overall, is out now on Reprise Records.

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