Fork in the Road
First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2009, Volume 16, #5
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Fri May 15, 2009, 03:30 AM CDT
Fork in the Road is so deliberately noncommercial that it immediately recalls the efforts over which Geffen Records sued Neil Young in the 1980s. Of course, the act of putting together a sequence of music that is designed for a niche market isn’t inherently a bad thing. A lot of the best albums that have ever been created initially struggled to be heard in a sympathetic light when they hit the market. In some cases, artists have been so far ahead of the times that it has taken years for the public to appreciate what was being offered.
Young has grappled with this dynamic for much of his professional life. Tonight’s the Night now is considered to be among the best endeavors in his canon, but when it first was issued in 1975, it was all but eviscerated by hostile critics. Unfortunately, Fork in the Road will not meet the same fate as Tonight’s the Night. There is no hint in the album’s 10 tracks that could be considered groundbreaking or even particularly worth hearing. Even worse, while the other minor efforts in Young’s considerable canon — such as Trans, Everybody’s Rocking, and This Note’s for You — contain at least a few moments of brilliance, it is hard to imagine Fork in the Road having any lasting value.
In the past, Young’s albums have appeared to be fatally flawed, only to gain resonance at a later date. Mirror Ball, his sloppy collaboration with Pearl Jam, for example, has since shed its grating textures to become something epic and vigorous. Likewise, the Booker T.-fed doo-wop that flows through many of the songs on Are You Passionate? now gives the album a presence that is uplifting and life-affirming. Therefore, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that opinions about Young’s work will shift over time.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle that Young faces these days is the notion that he has a core audience that will buy whatever he releases. With Fork in the Road, he’s really testing his fans. The album sounds as rushed as Living with War, but it lacks a sense of urgency. None of the anger and passion that made Living with War so compelling is in evidence on Fork in the Road. Punctuated by odd, interesting solos and witty lyrical phrases, these songs about cars and the environment offer, at best, an annoying harangue from rock’s favorite curmudgeon.
Could Fork in the Road have been saved by more time, effort, and attention? Probably not. Young is infamous for being a perfectionist. It isn’t unusual for him to delay the release of his work. At times, he even has bought the entire pressed stock of an album at his own expense to keep it from going public before he was satisfied. Of course, one needs to look no further than his on-again, off-again Archives set to realize what a harshly individualistic path he has hewn over the course of his career. Young obviously does whatever he wants to do.
This is, of course, one of the most endearing things about Young’s artistic outlook. His absolute indifference to what anyone thinks about his work is a perfect balm to the cynical, financially driven perspective that currently dominates the music industry. At this stage of the game, Young simply releases whatever appeals to him at the moment. He may never play any of these songs live after his current tour is over, or they may appear out of the blue at one of his concerts down the road. The Greendale songs that once filled his performances, for example, have completely disappeared from his shows. He is over them, and he has shifted his attention to his next project.
For fans of his amplified fare, there are lots of echoes of Young’s best, white-noise shredding a la Cortez the Killer contained within Fork in the Road. In addition, Young passionately sings about electric cars, government corruption, and bank bailouts. Most of the country is with him as he demands to know where the money has gone. In fact, it’s easy to sympathize with his anger over everything. Young is frustrated not only with how out of control the world has become but also with how human beings seem incapable of changing anything until they’re facing the abyss. Young is trying to awaken the masses in order to stave off oblivion. Fork in the Road is broadsheet music, and in this way, it is Young, the topical folk singer, that has crafted the endeavor.
Fork in the Road is a down-and-dirty, hot-off-the-presses journal that is filled with songs that reflect today’s headlines. Consequently, it is destined to live and die in the moment in which it was created. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. In fact, Young’s unflinching idealism is a welcome relief to the soul. Nevertheless, Fork in the Road hardly could be considered among his better endeavors. ½
Of Further Interest...
Fork in the Road is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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