Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fork in the Road

See, Living With War, this is how you do a political album. Fork in the Road is charmingly offbeat in its subject matter, inspired by Lincvolt, Neil Young's Lincoln Continental which he had modified to run on alternative energy. He uses this as a jumping off point mainly to talk about environmental issues, although he does touch on a few other topics. What helps Fork succeed where War sometimes faltered is both the general tone of the lyrics (more playful, hopeful, and thoughtful), and notably stronger songwriting. Oh, and it rocks harder.

I've always questioned the usefulness of rigidly specific political art. Does its subject matter date the material and make it irrelevant a few years down the line? Does the artist perhaps have a further obligation to make the work connect on other levels beyond its literal subject matter? One thing I admire about this album is its acknowledgment of these issues. On "Just Singing a Song," Neil says "You can sing about change/While you're making your own/You can be what you try to say/While the big wheel rolls/Just singing a song won't change the world."

Neil doesn't opt for any Crazy Horse-ian long-winded jams, but the album is heavy on groovy riffs. He brags about his electric car and celebrates life on the open road in the two opening tracks, "When World's Collide" and "Fuel Line," both bluesy hard rock tunes. That's essentially the predominant tone for most of the album, but he strays in a few places. The second to last song, "Light a Candle," is an acoustic ballad; the tone it strikes is a little melancholy, but the lyrics are consistent with Fork's forwarding looking, optimistic message ("Instead of cursin' the darkness/Light a candle for where we're goin'/There's somethin' ahead worth lookin' for").

My favorite song is probably "Cough Up the Bucks," presumably about the financial crisis. It's a little darker and more bitter than the other songs, but also a little more humorous, and the lyrics mainly consist of Neil repeating the title over and over anyway. What makes the song awesome is the music. My words will be deficient in trying to explain the quirkiness of the main riff, but I'll give it a shot: its a catchy hard rock riff seemingly made up of guitar harmonics, distortion and (I'm making up this term because I don't know how to describe it) "muffing" the strings with his hand, and not exactly playing any identifiable chords or notes. And it sounds sweet.

The only really low point on Fork in the Road is "Johnny Magic ," a tribute to the mechanic who put together Lincvolt. It's a little too peppy and corny for my tastes, and features some obnoxious backup singers piping in with "Johnny Magic! Johnny Magic!" incessantly in the background. Plus, every time I read the song's title, it makes me think of the crappy Tears For Fears song "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams," and then I have two stupid songs stuck in my head.

Will Fork end up like Living With War in a few years and feel irrelevant? I don't know. Right now, a little over a year after its release, with the whole horrible BP spill bullshit going on, it feels even more relevant than before. We'll see if it holds up. The album and title song's central metaphor says it all; we're at a crossroads and now's the time to make the right choices. And if we make those choices, this album could be a quaint antique in a few years. In which case, maybe irrelevancy would be a good thing.

Rating: B +

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