Neil Young’s 40th studio album, Peace Trail, is a hypnotic amalgam of acoustic folk-rock and mellow denim riffs accompanied by blasts of distortion-heavy harmonica and Les Paul electrics.
Any good? The Canadian singer/song-writer, 71, has produced a work that recalls his pared-down 1974 masterwork, On the Beach. Of the album’s 10 new songs, only one (the ditty-like Texas Rangers) grievously disappoints. Young’s distinctive falsetto is a thing of strange beauty, but here it often draws the listener in with its meditative intensity.
Knocked out over a few days at Rick Rubin’s super-cool Shangri-La Studios in Malibu, the album launches into a maraca-shaking tom-tom rhythm as Young delivers a pious-sounding hymn to the plight of Native American Indians. “Up in the rainbow tepee sky …” he intones, dead serious. Last November on Facebook, with his accustomed righteousness, Young called on President Obama to curb police violence against protesters trying to block construction of an oil pipeline near a North Dakota Sioux reservation.
Indian Givers, a shuffly acoustic performance, continues the protest with snatches of grungy harp over a two-chord blues riff. “There’s a battle raging on the sacred land,” Young sings in hectoring, testy mode, adding: “Our brothers and sisters have to take a stand …” Though the state has now come to an agreement with the protestors, some may flinch at Young’s hippie-era spirituality and earnestness.
Unfortunately, as Young well knows, Geronimo and his descendants stood little chance in the American Dream. The album’s heavily mythologised Dakota plains, where the Sioux, Cheyenne and other First Nations peoples fought and lost against the US Army in the 19th century, were swiftly overrun by European homesteaders and other pioneer settlers whose conservative identity was founded on the right to kill in self-defence. Peace Trail (Jim Keltner, drums; Paul Bushnell, bass) conjures a sour-sweet portrait of contemporary middle America, with its railroad tracks, grassy ranchlands and county courtrooms.
Can’t Stop Workin’, a tongue-in-cheek hosanna to the pioneer work ethic, is dark and intriguing, as is the poignant John Oaks ballad about a pick-up-driving eco-farmer who likes to call a spade a spade (“He calls it like he sees it”), until the National Guard gun him down over a shady, big business land dispute.
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