In the recent past, Neil Young's newest releases tended to be either gimmicky or strictly bound by some self-imposed restrictions. The Visitor, his collaboration with Promise Of The Real, is broad and all-encompassing. If there is one unifying factor, it's that the subject matter can be roughly described as Young's unflinching look at the state of the world, in all its abject beauty and squandered promise.
Neil Young is, deservedly, revered as one of our greatest living songwriters. Nevertheless, when an artist, even of his stature, sets about releasing his thirty-ninth studio album the initial response and subsequent reviews can err on the side of being dismissively polite. Quite rightly there's an increasing focus on redressing the balance of race and gender in the music industry, but there's rarely a thought for popular music's ageist tendencies.
This makes the high profile publicity campaign for The Visitor a bit of an anomaly. The album's release coincided with the launch of Young's massive, currently free online Archives and an equally well-publicised intimate solo gig in Omemee, Ontario (Young's hometown) which was streamed live online. You get the feeling that the Canadian legend wants The Visitor (his 39th studio album, if you're counting) to resonate far beyond the hardcore fans who've continued to faithfully pick up (and most likely rapidly file away) such lukewarm recent releases as Peace Trail and Earth, a high concept live album that reflected on Young's admirable commitment to environmental campaigning by overdubbing animal noises on so-so renditions of cherished deep cuts.
Last year's Peace Trail was a classic Neil Young bait and switch: a collaboration with a veteran session drummer, Jim Keltner, that seemed to promise a return to the form of his eternal albatross, 1972's Harvest, but turned into something considerably weirder and woolier. Now, with The Visitor, Young has delivered an album that appears at first glance like a retread of 2006's patchy, Bush administration-bashing Living with War, only to reveal unexpected layers of ambition and nuance throughout. The Visitor finds Young tilting again at the political windmills of the present day: namely, Donald Trump and the grim parody of the American dream that the president represents.
At the age of 72, Neil Young has forgone most of his contemporaries' chosen tenures. For the most part, he still operates exactly how he has since the 1970s, with new work arriving constantly and chaotically in bursts of inspiration, with little logic dictating what gets released and what doesn't. Over the last decade, reuniting with Crazy Horse has proven as likely to inspire new music as, say, buying a new car, or hanging out for an afternoon in Jack White's recording booth.
When you take into account that he's lived about 50 of his 72 years on US soil, it's not that odd for people to think of Neil Young as a natural-born American citizen. But in the opening line to his second full-length with Texas country rockers Promise of the Real, he doesn't waste any time reminding people where he's from originally. "I'm Canadian by the way," he sings on "Already Great".
"I 'm Canadian, by the way, and I love the USA", begins the first of 10 songs which survey Donald Trump's United States with a long-settled immigrant's sorrowful and disdainful eye. However, Neil Young's third album with (son of Willie) Lukas Nelson's band shrewdly eschews stereotypical angry songs for warm, pretty and even funny protest music. At best, this is really effective.
Like many citizens of the world, Neil Young didn't handle the electoral events of 2016 with ease. Already leaning toward a state of constant cryptic protest -- he managed to turn his 2016 live album, Earth, into an ecological rallying cry -- he decided to record an entire album of outrage at the Orange One in 2017, roping in his new backing band, Promise of the Real, for support. The Visitor never disguises Young's disgust with the direction America is headed.
"The Visitor "
Neil Young & Promise of the Real The question was never if Neil Young would release an anti-Trump record, but when. "The Visitor" reunites Young with the Lukas Nelson-led band Promise of the Real for a collection of protest songs that reaffirm his well-documented passion for the environment and communal activism. The record alternates between Crazy Horse-style rockers and gentle acoustic folk, though as always Young throws a few curveballs.