Music Review: Neil Young's Fork in the Road

by Rick Rockwell

Somewhere en route to his 33rd solo album, 63-year-old Neil Young turned into a grumpy eccentric uncle. Except this eccentric uncle still plays a mean guitar.

This grumpy middle aged critic appreciates what Young attempts on his latest release Fork in the Road, but like a wise guru at the top of a mountain, only half of what Young says here seems to connect, if that much.

On the positive side, the title track is almost six minutes of Young joking and riffing satirically; taking pokes at American consumer culture and the bosses who want us to buy the bread and circuses mentality. Young half sings, half talks his way through the song. Most of the lyrics don’t rhyme. But still it works. In one couplet, Young laments: “There’s a bailout comin’ but it’s not for me/it’s for all those creeps watchin’ tickers on TV.” Young’s attitude and crunching riffs pull the song out along with some of his historic rock references tossed into the seemingly off-the-cuff lyrical mix. Along the way, Young also takes a swipe at the audio quality of free mp3s (although he streamed this album for a time at his myspace page), condemns the modern navel-gazing blogging culture, and curses at the Iraq War, all for good measure.

Another highlight comes with “Just Singing a Song,” where Young and his lo-fi garage band lay down some licks that recall Zuma while Young admits, “just singing a song won’t change the world.” That’s quite a realization from the hippie-philosopher who penned “Southern Man” and “Ohio.” But Young has done more than merely sing songs. He’s one of the founders of Farm Aid, to boost small farmers and his LincVolt project aims at converting gas guzzlers into smooth gliding electric cars.

Unfortunately, that eco-project seems to have grabbed the main focus of Young’s muse and much of the album is an extended metaphor about cars. (This is why this stripped down 38-minute release includes a string of songs with titles such as “Fuel Line,” “Off the Road,” “Hit the Road,” etc.) Not since Trans in the mid-1980s has Young let the auto steer his music so and although the result isn’t that bad, it’s far from this rock icon’s best. “Fuel Line” is likely the worst of these with an over-produced chorus of backing singers and ridiculous lyrics. If this is a joke, like the title track, this time the humor falls flat.

Of the ten tracks here, less than half have that certain combination of intangible chemistry that makes Young such a wonderful musical alchemist (an ability to make mediocre material deep such as 1986’s Landing on Water or divine as with the grungy Freedom of 1989). After the tease of 2007’s Chrome Dreams II, perhaps this critic was expecting more.

Still, Young knows how to make a soundtrack for the news of the day. He did it in the 1970s and he’s still doing it today. His “Cough Up the Bucks” has a catchy guitar hook and simple lyrics (the chorus of “Where did all the money go?” becomes mesmerizing against the chant of the song’s main line) but seems a fitting soundtrack for the age of AIG anger.

So despite Young’s audiophile opinion of mp3s, the suggestion here is to cherry-pick the best cuts. At this fork in the musical road, perhaps the best advice is to leave the grumpy artist on his mountaintop wailing his complaints while we take the low consumer road. And perhaps that’s just what Young thought we would do and why he became so grumpy in the first place.

(For other posts about Neil Young, please see: "Music: Neil Young and the Elusive Archives;" and "Music Review: Neil Young's Chrome Dreams II.")

(The promotional photo of Neil Young is from Warner Brothers Records. Young plays the second date of his world tour at St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada on April 9. To see the video for the title track of
Fork in the Road, please check below.)

Neil Young - Fork In The Road

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