Neil Young is undeniably one of music’s legends, one of the greats. This also, albeit potentially unfairly, brings an expectation of him beyond most other artists. And although I want to approach new releases as new and unique entities, it is hard to ignore the historic and diverse catalogue spanning across six decades, but I can certainly try.
His latest, and 37th solo album, Peace Trail is predominantly an acoustic collection with minor and implicit instrumentation, although at times Young surprises with highly unexpected flairs.
Vocally, Young is sounding a lot weaker and older. Of course this is expected, aged 71 Neil is no longer young, but I could not help but feel slightly disheartened when hearing his vocals beginning to weaken. As one of the globally renowned icons that performed at Desert Trip this summer, hearing what sounds like it could be the start of the end Young’s career solemnly reminded me how the musical era that undeniably created some of the greatest musicians of all time is also coming to an end.
Young’s deteriorated vocals are supported by somewhat dismal and socially disconnected lyricism. Noticeably on closing track My New Robot, Young describes the process of purchasing new goods online and how both retail and life have become fleetingly digitalised as he describes, “to enter your new seven-digit password, that must contain at least one numeric character and your mother’s maiden name”. The stark contrast of Young’s vocals throughout the record and the contemporary references only exposes the distance between the generation of musicians that Young belongs and the way in which society has developed.
But alternatively, this also shows Young’s distaste with modern life and the lack of human interaction rather than his disconnection. This idea is continued throughout the album and is politically relative. Suicide Hang Gliders alludes to the current state of affairs dominating global politics and goes on to say, “I never knew ‘till yesterday my life would end tomorrow” and “I think I know who to blame, it’s all those people with funny names, moving in to our neighbourhood, how can I tell if they’re bad or good?” In a growingly tense and divided time for politics, particularly in the Americas, Young remains to sound as relevant as ever, and also makes other tracks that are less politicised appear relevant.
Overdubbed auto tune is not something typically associated with Neil Young, but here, Young uses this both in a clever yet garish way. My Pledge has no subtlety at all with the overdubbed auto-tune and even after a few listens I’m still not sure how I feel about this combination. Part of me wants to love the different stance taken, part of me wants to admire his determination to continue staying relevant and part of me hates the fact that someone as iconic as Young feels that he has to divert from his typical folk/rock comfort. And not only did the use of the auto-tune divide me, the way in which Young has applied it also did. At times it made me smile, knowing that there was an element of genius to his technique, and at times I was confused and disorientated – although this may fittingly support his feelings about the current state of affairs.
Both melody and arrangement are lacking in places, but for a record made in four days this is expected. I cant help but feel that with a little more time the record could have been a lot fuller and also more refined, but at the same time, there is still the general feel and emotion of Young seeping through.
As is often the case, I sense like many that have come before, Peace Trail will be appreciated more in 10 or 15 years time when both politics and society has warped to a different position, Young’s record providing a musical snapshot of the diverse and altering world in 2016.