Living with War
The Music Box's #8 album of 2006
First Appeared in The Music Box, June 2006, Volume 13, #6
Written by John Metzger
Neil Young is no stranger to penning protest songs, but unlike many of his peers, his political affiliation isn’t easy to pigeonhole. On Ohio, he slammed Richard Nixon for the 1970 massacre of student protestors by National Guardsmen at Kent State, yet by the time that Campaigner was issued seven years later, he seemed to find empathy for the former U.S. leader. He also publicly criticized Jimmy Carter, ushered in the Reagan era with the flag-waving Hawks & Doves, supported the tenets behind the Patriot Act, and responded to the 9/11 attacks with Let’s Roll, an homage to the passengers on United Flight 93. On the other hand, he devoted a large portion of his life to saving family farms from financial ruin at the hands of large corporations, and he protested the Gulf War during his Arc/Weld tour by shredding in Hendrix-ian fashion Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind while standing in front of a tie-dyed backdrop of a peace sign.
Although, at first glance, Young’s ideals appear to be little more than a stream of scattered reactionary retorts, a closer examination of his canon — from After the Gold Rush to Rust Never Sleeps, from On the Beach to Are You Passionate?, and from This Note’s for You to Greendale — reveals a series of recurring themes that not only bind together the totality of his work but also crystallize his beliefs into a coherent vision that is well-suited to that bastion of red-statehood: Middle America. Throughout Young’s career, neither his patriotism nor his spiritual convictions have ever wavered, and he holds hard-working Americans as well as their families in high regard, while downright despising those who abuse the power and the privileges that are granted to them. In that sense, his latest outing Living with War fits neatly within the framework of his back catalogue, and considering that he can’t be dismissed quite so readily as one of Move On’s leftist disciples, it ought to scare the bejesus out of a Washington establishment whose popularity ratings have gone seriously sour in recent months.
For certain, there’s no mistaking Young’s fury, and the brute force with which Living with War’s material is delivered perfectly complements the raw emotional content of his lyrics. Written and recorded over the course of two weeks and ushered to market in less than a month, the angst-filled album boasts a bare bones band that pits Young’s frazzled, electric guitar snarls against a stampede of drums and bass, all of which is colored by a mariachi trumpet and uplifted by a 100-strong gospel choir that is meant to symbolize the rising voices of American citizens. Throughout the endeavor, Young borrows from Bob Dylan — most directly, Flags of Freedom is drawn from Chimes of Freedom, while Roger and Out hints at Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door — and he meditates upon Rockin’ in the Free World by sculpting from the song his own thousand points of light, each of which is meant to illuminate the many failings of the latest Bush presidency.
Where T Bone Burnett, on his recently issued set The True False Identity, took a more cerebral approach to socio-political commentary by burying his poetic ruminations within a series of arty textures, Young delivers his thoughts on Living with War in a decidedly more straightforward fashion. Significantly upping the ante, he ditched the lyrical complexities of his theater piece Greendale and replaced them with a ferociously direct indictment of the Republican leadership’s failed policies. "Won’t need no shadow man/Runnin’ the government/Won’t need no stinkin’ war," he sings with contempt on the opening track After the Garden. Later, on the aptly titled Let’s Impeach the President, he lambastes George W. Bush and then intersperses soundbites from America’s Commander-in-Chief with the chanted words "flip" and "flop" in a manner that would make Daily Show host Jon Stewart proud. In fact, by the time that the album has concluded, Young angrily has taken Bush to task not just over the war in Iraq, but also for his fiscal irresponsibility, his post-9/11 blundering, his scandalous handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, his various infringements upon civil liberties, and the environmental devastation that he has wrought to the benefit of massive, global corporations.
There’s no question that Living with War is a product of the environment in which it was born, and the specificity of many of Young’s statements likely will reduce its life span significantly. Nevertheless, there’s an urgency to the album that has been strikingly absent from rock music for several decades and buried within the affair are several tracks that not only serve to innoculate him from the usual right-wing charges of "blaming America first" but also grant the collection a more timeless resonance. For example, he tucks the gospel-hued holiness of The Star-Spangled Banner into the title track, concludes the set with a solemn interpretation of America the Beautiful, and demonstrates his support for the troops by touchingly empathizing with them and their loved ones on Families, Flags of Freedom, and Roger and Out.
Although the fact that Young isn’t an American citizen is bound to draw criticism from those seeking to deflect attention from the problems at hand, it’s also true that he has resided in the U.S.A. for 40 years while raising a family and contributing significantly to the nation’s infrastructure. In other words, he’s an immigrant just like everyone else in the country, one who has learned to love the place that he calls home despite its flaws. On Living with War, Young essentially caps a trilogy of song cycles that have found him shifting from thoughtfully asking the electorate "Are you passionate?" to fervently portraying in all its ragged glory his visceral reaction to what has become of the post-9/11 world, and this time, he seems to have everyone’s attention.
Living with War is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box