Neil Young’s “Are You Passionate?” is trimmed with Stax Records gold. It was recorded with part of the legendary Memphis soul label’s rhythm section: organist Booker T. Jones and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. and the MG’s. Young doesn’t stop at using Stax’s personnel; he uses the actual music. On three songs — “Differently,” “You’re My Girl” and “Be With You” — Dunn plays variations of his classic bass line from Booker T.’s “Time Is Tight.”
Young as Soul Man? Believe it. In his mid-Sixties pre-Buffalo Springfield youth, Young played in a band called the Mynah Birds, which included future funk maven Rick James, and was briefly signed to Motown Records. And like most of the singer’s makeovers — from the fluorescent computer games of Trans to the grunge touches of Mirror Ball — Are You Passionate? hums on Young’s timeless brand of fossil fuel: love that burns, faith that endures and guitar solos that keep searching for a heart of gold.
Consider the jagged guitar line that runs through the new album’s centerpiece, “Goin’ Home” — nearly all nine minutes of it. Young has been playing versions of that solo for three decades, and it reverberates like Morse code through his past, through “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Like a Hurricane” and huge chunks of Re-ac-tor and Ragged Glory. On “Goin’ Home,” he patiently surfs the thundering tom-tom waves of Crazy Horse (it’s the sole track on which his longtime backing band appears) and adds a new chapter to his ongoing reinvention of America’s past. Here, Custer makes his last stand at a corporate headquarters, surrounded by “assorted slimes.” Young’s surrealist imagery, the collision of the Old West and the New Greed, recalls the audacious historical juxtapositions that lit up earlier classics such as “Powderfinger,” “Cortez the Killer” and “Pocahontas.”
This turbulent epic is sandwiched by some of Young’s breeziest groove music ever. With three-fourths of Booker T. and the MG’s on board (including Steve Potts, the band’s drummer since 1994), Young makes his intentions clear by nicking the guitar riff from Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” on the opening “You’re My Girl,” a sweet song about a daughter’s transition to adulthood. Dunn’s bass weaves and Potts’ drums bob, gently but insistently urging him on, while Jones’ Hammond organ hovers like a benevolent apparition. On “Be With You,” the rhythm-guitar accents pay tribute to the muscular terseness of the one absent MG, Steve Cropper.
Young embraces not just the music but the indomitable spirit of Southern soul. Even though the blues come knocking on “Mr. Disappointment,” “Differently” and “Don’t Say You Love Me,” Young fends them off with determined optimism that is both articulated (“I’m never quittin’ you/Even if you quit me”) and felt, in the lyricism of his guitar playing and the buoyancy of Dunn’s rolling bass tempos. “Are You Passionate?” and “When I Hold You in My Arms” are luminous affirmations, loping slow jams in which Young’s high, weathered voice is soothed by Jones’ bourbon-smooth church chords.
What makes this Mr. Young-goes-to-Memphis excursion resonate is the trouble that lurks just outside its boundaries. “Let’s Roll,” an homage to the heroic passengers who took on terrorist hijackers aboard a doomed airliner September 11th, is built on a shambling cliche of a guitar riff that sounds like it was left over from an old Joe Walsh album. But the tune bares teeth when Young transforms the war on “evil” into a concrete image midway through the tune, the predator suddenly stalked by its prey: “And when it tries to hide/You gotta go in after it.”
“Two Old Friends” reminisces about the days when “the Band played ‘Rock of Ages’ in their prime” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” sounded like a prophecy rather than a faded dream. But it’s the delicate architecture of Young’s falsetto pleas, Dunn’s wistful bass and Potts’ elegantly shaded percussion that pull the song back from the brink of despair.
“She’s a Healer” arrives just in time, a balm delivered at such a leisurely, Latin-tinged pace that the listener might at first miss the ferocity of its conviction. Like most of the album, it’s a slow-burn charmer that befits the legacy of a flannel-shirted soul man. “All I got is a broken heart, and I don’t try to hide it when I play my guitar,” Young sings. And then he’s off, taking his time, each craggy note carving a path through the heartache and toward some hard-earned solace.