By Mark Guarino
War is messy and urgent, just like the music made in its wake.
Neil Young felt the call in late March when he bunked in Los Angeles to write and then immediately record the songs that are “Living With War” (Reprise). The CD is in stores today although it was streamed for free through his website and last week became available via iTunes.
This is bold stuff, and not just because of the politics. In an age where media calculation is a calibrated science, Young is trumping his peers — young and old — by transferring passion into music and then rushing it to the public. Using creativity to pump life into the national discourse is workmanship of a first-rate artist. The music is held together by loose ends, but there is no denying its spirit. The music rankles, but better than that, it forces conversation, something that, in this country, has long been on mute.
Almost instantly, news of the album shocked and awed media chatter. Right wing outlets protested a song titled “Let’s Impeach the President” while the left wing cheered what they perceived as a sympathetic rallying cry.
No dice. These nine songs (the tenth is “America the Beautiful”) can’t be squeezed into a bumpersticker. They ask questions, sympathize with the victims of reckless authority and rage against misplaced priorities. One song (“Lookin’ For a Leader”) even combs through potential Oval Office replacements. “Maybe it’s Obama/but he thinks that he’s too young/maybe it’s Colin Powell/to right what he’s done wrong,” Young sings.
Preventing the songs from doubling as rants is a 100-member choir Young enlists to share his vocals. While the music has the loud guitar discord and chugging rhythm of his signature work with Crazy Horse, the vocals — thick and varied — sound like a community coming together. “People are starving here and there/they don’t see the world the way you do/there’s no mission accomplished here/just death to thousands,” they sing.
Protest songs tend to trump songcraft with polemics. Yet here are some of Young’s most battered and seething batch since “Ragged Glory” (Reprise). On “Shock and Awe,” he filters a wrecked guitar solo alongside a mournful trumpet. “Let’s Impeach the President” is more than a checklist of reasonable reasons, it follows them up with sound clips of President Bush making contradictory statements. A trumpet plays “Taps” at the start; by the end Young cries “flip/flop.”
Young has responded to headlines through music before. Three weeks after the student massacre at Kent State University in 1970, he released “Ohio,” a song that galvanized the student protest movement during the Vietnam era. Weeks after Sept. 11, he unveiled “Let’s Roll,” dedicated to the passengers of United 93. “Living With War” has a similar insistence and no less outrage.