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Neil Young - Living With War (Reprise)

22 May 2006

“Angry” is the word everyone is using to describe the new NEIL YOUNG album Living With War. And as a gut-reaction to the events of the day—written, recorded, and released within a month or so—certainly outrage was part of the driving force behind it. Outrage at the lies of the president and the deaths they’ve caused, and at the power and money games historically played by those in the government.

But the album doesn’t sound angry. Instead it alternates between sounding joyful and sad, its overall tone better described as one of bruised hope than of rage.

You don’t put a 100-voice choir on your album, its members singing to the heights of their voices, if all you’re trying to do is express anger. The choir instead gives Young’s rock songs both a community feeling and an uplifting one, as if this music were meant to inspire, not to shock.

The way the vocal choir and Young’s rough, Ragged Glory-esque guitar playing meet, and sound good together, is the reason this album may stand as more than just an impulsive statement, a “blog album” as it has somewhat dismissively been called. The choir-and-guitar mix helps make this one of the more hopeful-sounding protest albums. Combine that with the fact that many of the lyrics go beyond just condemnation, and you have a richer sort of protest album, one that offers more than just the musical version of a picket sign.

The first two songs, “After the Garden” and “Living with War,” strike an especially powerful balance between sadness and hope. Young’s guitar playing and melodies both have an optimistic tone, while Young’s world-weary voice and his lyrics contain much sadness.

The first song is elegiac and apocalyptic, worrying about the future, while the second song strikes a subtler note of hope, sadness, and indignation. With a battered trumpet playing a sort of rough jubilee tune, and Young’s voice blending right in with the choir, voicing solidarity with his fellow human beings, “Living with War” stands as an expression of the ways that war affects everyone. “I’m living with war in my heart,” he poignantly sings. Towards the song’s end, he and his choir allude to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a move that’s in line with the album’s overall patriotic feeling that celebrates the country and its people while disagreeing with its leaders.

This sort of patriotism is the driving force behind “Families”, in which Young takes the point of view of a soldier excited to return to the USA, despite “a chill wind blowin’ in [his] head.” It’s the driving force behind “Flags of Freedom,” which nods toward BOB DYLAN’s “Chimes of Freedom” while telling a simpler, more concrete tale about sending young people off the war. And of course it’s behind the choir’s album-ending, voices-to-the-sky rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

In the context of those songs, the more aggressively rebellious songs also fit within a patriotic frame, as expressions of disagreement with the government’s actions. Perhaps this is why when Young released the album for free on his web site, he kept it all as one track, not wanting someone to focus only on the song “Let’s Impeach the President” and think he was just trying to make a statement grand enough to draw publicity (as it did). A hearty sing-along, that song too has an ‘up’ tone about it, though there’s sadness in it as well.

Less hopeful-sounding is “The Restless Consumer,” in which Young sounds anguished, and even angry. It’s also one of the less successful songs, sometimes seeming like an awkward relative of “This Note’s For You,” though Young’s repeated “don’t need no more lies” exclamation carries real pain within it. The fiery “Shock and Awe” also has the presence of pure outrage, though here the key lines are the image “thousands of children scarred for life” and the final “We had a chance to change our mind,” during a section that acknowledges how human weakness can lead to the sort of complicity that allows for massacres to happen.

If “sadly hopeful” is the best term to describe the album’s tone, it’s expressed most poignantly on the road-song ballad “Roger and Out,” where Young finds a loping pace and uses it to ruminate about an old hippie friend who died in the war. “I feel you in the air today,” he quietly observes, at once touching on the legacy of protest, the history of war, and the human cost of war.

“America is beautiful / But she has an ugly side,” Young sings on “Lookin’ for a Leader.” That song’s not one of the best here, as it’s a bit shallower and more immediately topic-driven than the rest. But that lyric stands out as a summary of the album’s perspective. Living With War is a portrait of that ugly side of America, but it conveys a fair amount of its beauty, too.