Thursday, July 1, 2010

Living With War

So back in 2006, Neil Young made a protest album about how much he didn't like George W. Bush. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but Living With War falls victim to the pitfalls common to political music. The most obvious of which is how, only 4 years later, the album is dated to the point of irrelevance. We're living in Barack Obama's America now, so the specificity of some of these songs is distracting; they serve no function outside of their original context. I suppose there's value as historical documentation, but it's difficult to get worked up over the criticisms that don't apply any more.

The other major flaw with the album is the tone of smugness and self-righteousness that infects some of the songs, which is not an attractive quality in music. This primarily manifests itself in the lyrics. Personally, I think political music works best when it comes from a place of passion, or dark humor, or hope. But gloating condescension and moral superiority just make the artist sound a little assholish.

My least favorite song is "Let's Impeach the President," where Neil offers the bon mot "Thank god he's cracking down on steroids/Since he sold his old baseball team." To be honest, though, what really rubs me wrong about the song is Neil's use of "let's" and "we" and "our" and other inclusive terms when, despite the fact that he's lived here for many years, he's not a US citizen. I don't mind a Canadian insulting our president, but I don't think he should be including himself in the "let's." He scoffs about "the days of Mission Accomplished" on "Shock and Aww." He insists that "The people have spoken/You might not like what they said/But they weren't joking" on "The Restless Consumer." And on "Looking For a Leader" I feel that he starts to pander, saying the next president could be "a woman, or a black man after all," a line that only exists to get applause. (Not to mention, why no shout-out to Jews, Asians, Hispanics, Muslims and the countless other minorities who have never held America's highest office?)

Problems extend to the music itself. The album was cranked out pretty quickly, and there's a Greendale-like sense of the music being subordinate to the lyrics. The overall sound of the album is Crazy Horse-esque midtempo rock, with the welcome occasional addition of a trumpet. Okay, but then Neil decided to go ahead and record a 100-person choir singing backup for all of the songs. Even ignoring the fact that it adds to the album's sometimes self-righteous tone (as it's, I can only assume, supposed to be the voice of America joining Neil in speakin' out), it just sounds like shit. It doesn't match the album's grungy, low-fi sound, and is awkwardly layered in under all the fuzz. It has the grating quality of one of those Kidz Bop albums they always used to show commercials for on TV; tuneless, homogenized and obnoxious.

The album does shine on a few occasions, usually when Neil gets less specific and tries to process things poetically and personally (as I've mentioned many times before, I tend to think he should stick to writing inward). The album's opener, "After the Garden," is a catchy and effective cautionary tale about the post-apocalyptic world we may be living in if we don't take better care of the planet. On "Flags of Freedom," Neil sings "Have you seen the flags of freedom?/What color are they now?/Do you think that you believe in yours/More than they do theirs somehow?", a powerful sentiment that seems both more timeless and generalized, and a little more thoughtful and nuanced than many of the other lyrics on the album. The best song, by far, is the title track, a beautiful and moving song about the emotional toll of war that is so eloquent in its antiwar message that it, frankly, makes the rest of the album seem pointless.

Rating: C


Joseph said...

Just in Neil's defense, I have to say that although the songs on this album are pretty clumsy at times, it was still pretty bold even in 2006 to put out such a blatantly political album. I mean, the tide was beginning to turn against Bush so it's not like he was exactly leading the pack, but I don't know if I can think of another major artist that made anywhere near as direct a condemnation of Bush and his policies as Neil does here. It's one thing for Bad Religion to put out and anti-Bush album, but Neil has to be the most outspoken major artist of that era in terms of his actual artistic output. I go back and forth on the actual worth of an overtly political album like this, which isn't likely to convert anyone who doesn't already agree and also has little to say to anyone who already does agree... but you gotta give the guy credit for being direct and not soft-pedaling wishy-washy please-everyone tunes about supporting the troops like so many of his peers did. I feel like Neil thought this was more of a statement than an album (and it feels that way sometimes) but I gotta give him credit for making it.

Shenan said...

After weeks of only remembering at work that I wanted to find this clip of Neil Young on the Colbert Report to remember this particular thing he said when he was on it, and forgetting once I got home and could actually watch it, working from home has allowed me the perfect combination of both being at work with my drive to goof off thus turned up high, and being at home where I can act on it.

So the point is, Colbert asked him, "Now...didn't you already get this out of your system in the 60s? Didn't you protest the Vietnam War? Couldn't you let someone else get this one?" and Neil responds, "I tried, I tried to...I waited until I was 60! But then I had to give it up, for myself."

And I think that pretty much summarizes why he made the album. It's something he probably knew wasn't going to be a golden success like Harvest or After the Goldrush. But it's something he couldn't stay silent about, and he had to make the album, if only for his own conscience.

Joseph said...

Yeah, I mean you can argue with Neil's points or his methods but you can't say that he wasn't the only one to really step in there and say what a lot of us were feeling at a time when a lot of artists were tiptoing around a lot of the big issues.

I mean, as unhelpful as it may be, "Let's Impeach the President" is a pretty brazen statement for any generation.

Dan said...


Thanks once again for being one of only 2 people who doesn't know me personally who posts on my blog.

This was one of the more difficult posts I had to write for this project, because I tried to take great pains in not coming off like I was objecting to the album based on its message, which in a non-general way I agree with. I tried not to really talk much about my own political beliefs, because I didn't want to criticize the album in regards to its message so much as its presentation of its message, which I find highly problematic. Not sure that really worked, and maybe it still reads as if I'm unfairly slagging Neil for his beliefs.

That said, I'm still not really sure that the album deserves much credit for boldness/timeliness/etc etc. Neil deserves the credit, sure, but it doesn't make the album any better in my opinion. The songs are rough and too often unmemorable, the lyrics obsolete and too specific to have relevance to my life right now, the overall tone a little too self-satisfied. With the exception of 2 or 3 songs, it's just not something I'll listen to much in life.

And that's what my grade reflects. Not whether or not I agreed with the message or admire Neil's balls, but my feelings about it as a work of music/art. Please see my post on "Fork in the Road"; it's a political album of his I admire AND I enjoy, and that's why it ranks higher.

And let me use this response as an opportunity to mention "The Revolution Starts Now," a wonderful anti-Bush album released by Steve Earle in 2004. It's a little smug as well, but its also funny, touching, thoughtful, provocative... and most of the music itself is fantastic. If you haven't heard it, please seek it out... and maybe you'll better understand where I'm coming from in giving "Living With War" a negative review.