Release Date: Dec 9, 2016
Record label: Reprise
The crusty old campaigner goes on the warpath on his 38th studio album Neil Young has long been a vigorous eco-warrior, flagging up his environmental concerns as early as 1970’s After The Gold Rush. But his growing standing as one of rock’s elder statesmen appears to have sharpened his focus of late. 2015’s The Monsanto Years was twofold: a plea for a more sustainable world and a bitter swipe at the US biotech giant of its title.
“Things here have changed,” announces a computerized voice at the end of Peace Trail, the scrappy and strange new album by Neil Young. The song is called “My New Robot” and it might be about a recent divorcee taking comfort in the presence of “Alexa,” the voice-activated feature of Amazon’s new household device Echo. But those four words at the end, which introduce a barrage of online sounds (requesting to swipe your card, enter your pin number, your mother’s maiden name) hint at the bigger picture behind the record.
Neil Young’s songbook long ago cemented its place among the best in rock and roll history. But writing great songs has always seemed to be but one part of Young’s greater mission. His continued relevance into the sixth decade of his career is owed to something that transcends hooks and melodies. Young is now, and always has been, the closest thing rock music has had to a moral compass.
First, the good news. Peace Trail is a major improvement on last year’s Monsanto Years, a shrill, charmless rant about corporate greed that could well bag the dubious honour of being the only record in Young’s marathon career with no redeeming features. The bad news is that the 71-year old legend's rush to push out fresh product (this is Young's second release of 2016 following the bizarrely overdubbed - animal noises and saccharine choirs, anyone? - live record Earth) continues to result in extremely shoddy quality control.
Everything moves fast these days, including Neil Young, American rock’s vocal conscience. Young may not be over-fond of modernity, often inveighing against poor quality digital streaming, but the 10 songs that make up his 38th–ish studio album are the sonic equivalent of tweets: concise, swift and reactive. Written since his last album – a live outing, Earth, released in June and recorded, largely acoustically, in just four days – Peace Trail is in many ways very up-to-the-minute.
Sometimes Neil Young makes music for the ages; other times – as on his second album of 2016, following June's folk-absurdist amalgam Earth – Young makes music for the news cycle. Recorded in four days, Peace Trail contains casual social and political observations set to folk tracks improvised alongside drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell. Young's latest batch of tunes righteously rebuke the Dakota Access Pipeline, trigger-happy cops, environmental malfeasance and smartphone zombies.
I fully expect Neil Young’s next album to be a carefully composed orchestral suite, devoid of topical references and recorded over a period of several months. But not because that’s likely to happen—only because it would be happy confounding of expectations. At this point, Young is releasing music in a flurry. He has much on his mind, and much to say, and there’s an urgency to get everything out there.
The 21st century revived Neil Young's radical spirit and, along with it, his sense of musical adventure. These two strands converge on Peace Trail, a rickety record written and cut in the wake of his 2016 live album, Earth. Neil wrote Peace Trail quickly and recorded it even faster, pushing through ten songs in four days with the support of ace drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell.
Neil Young is a man audibly proud of his work ethic. “I can’t stop working, because I like to work when nothing else is going on,” he sings at one point during Peace Trail, his 40th studio album (with a further eight live albums, three soundtrack albums, eight “archive” albums, 11 unreleased albums, and three with Buffalo Springfield). And who can blame him? Not for Young the usual lot of the septuagenarian rocker, with its calm routine of gigs dutifully packed with greatest hits.
What a mess. With Peace Trail, Neil Young continues his streak of tossed off, lacklustre, even at times provocatively shoddy records he's maintained since his longtime producer David Briggs passed away in 1995. For 20 years now, it seems like no one has been there to save Neil Young from his own worst impulses.Musically, his 37th studio album marks a low point in Young's storied career.
"Peace Trail" is Neil Young's second album this year, recorded over four days with drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell. "Peace Trail" is Neil Young's second album this year, recorded over four days with drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell. Neil Young remains one of the more compelling of the '60s rock stars because he just doesn't give a hoot about pleasing his fans or recycling his greatest hits.
Neil Young’s music has had a political bent for decades — the Kent State elegy “Ohio,” the fist-raising anti-Bush I anthem “Rockin’ in the Free World,” last year’s broadside against agriculture giant Monsanto “The Monsanto Years. ” On his 38th album, the Canadian shredder-songwriter strips down and takes aim at the current world’s ailments, while still offering a ray of hope via the power of his songs; “I see the same old signs/ but something new is growing,” he muses over the shuffling beat of the title track. Young’s distinctive paper-thin voice guides the album, quivering with import and plainspoken lyrics that have clearly been thrumming inside him for a while.
Neil Young’s 37th studio album, Peace Trail, does a good job of confusing and bewildering listeners with its barely realized songs. Most of it meanders through half-baked ideas, offering jarring experiences of disappointment or astonishment. The gimmicky A.I. voice employed to fizzle out closing track My New Robot – which also drops the lines “My life has been so lucky, the package has arrived / I got my new robot from amazon.com” – should come as a shock, but by the time you get there, you’re numb to cheesiness.