It’s easy to argue that Neil Young’s time as a musician with widespread social relevance has come and gone. That might be true.
But it appears not to matter to Young, whose new album “Peace Trail” (out Dec. 9 on Reprise) is a typically political affair, complete with criticism of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Islamophobia and, maybe most refreshingly, himself.
This is Young’s 38th studio album and a deceptively ambitious one. For the most part, it’s sparsely populated with acoustic and light-crunch guitars, natural percussion and his airy, disarming voice. There’s the occasional auto-tuned verse, like on the title track, or a harmonica railroaded with distortion, like on “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders,” but they’re not exactly the norm. These sounds are jarring, and also clearly intentional, as if to signify how a rapidly changing world has affected Young’s music. It’s not always pleasant.
Throughout, Young presents himself as something of a crabby man with nonetheless incessant energy for social justice. If “Peace Trail” is any indication, he hasn’t really mellowed from the decades-ago days of “Ohio,” he’s just aged a bit. He may not exactly be an old sage, but he can at least be seen as someone in solidarity with efforts for social progression in 2016.
“Indian Givers,” for which Young released a music video on YouTube in September, is one of the easiest-deciphered protest songs on the album. On it, he voices his opposition to the construction of an oil pipeline in North Dakota that several Native American tribes and other activists fear will harm sacred lands and burial grounds, as well as pollute the Missouri River.
He sings: “Now it’s been about 500 years, / we keep taking what we gave away. / Just like what we call ‘Indian givers,’ / it makes you sick and gives you shivers.”
He moves on to speak on the human tendency for tribalism with simplicity and some playfulness. On “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders,” he sings: “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?”
Young’s final song, “My New Robot,” is one of “Peace Trail’s” finest. It brings what is usually a tired theme of how technology adversely affects everyday life to a satisfying head, and moves from beautiful and melancholic to humorous in about two-and-a-half short minutes.
“It’s a lonely cup of coffee, ‘cause my baby’s gone. / Someone has to work, I know that’s true. / Carpenters bring ladders; I bring love to you. / Their working day beginning under skies of blue / is just now getting started, and I’m sitting under a tree / singing a song and thinking of you. / My life has been so lucky, the package has arrived. / I got my new robot from Amazon.com.”
The song trails off to robotic voices giving common internet commands and ends abruptly with a voice “powering off.” It’s a brilliant and understated song that captures Young’s protest essence without coming across as over-the-top. Don’t sleep on it. Don’t sleep on him.
Evidently, his slow burn has him growing like a tree, changing a lot but not too quickly, all the while keeping in accordance with his nature.
Long live Young.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5