In a time of crisis, subtlety is not an option, and speed is essential. Neil Young recorded the nine original songs on this album in six days, just a month ago. He wrote four of those songs on the day he cut them. And in all nine, Young charges the current president and his administration with, among other things, lying, spying, waging war with no right or reason and dereliction of duty to the nation’s founding ideals. He then calls for the most extreme judgment available to the American people in “Let’s Impeach the President,” with rusty-fuzz guitar, the righteous muscle of a hundred-strong choir, a trumpet playing “Taps” and the self-incriminating voice of Bush himself.
Living With War is one man’s opinion: Young reports, you decide. But it is an indictment of the sorry state of open debate in this country — and its rock & roll — that the most direct, public and inspiring challenge to the Bush presidency this year has been made by a sixty-year-old Canadian-born singer-songwriter who, even at his most apoplectic, can’t resist a line like “trippin’ down the old hippie highway” (“Roger and Out”). It is also an impressive measure of Young’s refusal to burn out or fade away that he states his case with clarity as well as dirty garage-trio momentum. For me, the most damning lines in “Let’s Impeach the President” have nothing to do with Iraq and everything to do with Washington’s shameful delinquency at home: “What if Al Qaeda blew up the levees?/Would New Orleans have been safer that way/Sheltered by our government’s protection?”
Young has stuck his neck out before, not always in the expected direction (“Even Richard Nixon has got soul,” he noted in “Campaigner”). But he has not written and recorded with such emergency since “Ohio.” You can hear the haste in the sometimes odd balance of Young’s strangled tenor and the gospel army behind him. And many songs are built on mantralike repetition: Young’s chanting of “Don’t need/No more lies” in “The Restless Consumer,” the circular worry in the melody of the title song. But much of the album is set to the rhythm of Vietnam repeating itself. In “Flags of Freedom,” a young girl watches her brother march off to certain death to a chorus that echoes Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.” And since the White House ensures that we don’t see the soaring price of Iraq — the coffins coming home — on the evening news, Young has trumpeter Tom Bray blow a bruised, elegiac solo for the dead in “Shock and Awe,” against sandstorm guitar and the harsh splash of drummer Chad Cromwell’s cymbals.
Right-wing foghorns will go to town with the fact that Young is not a U.S. citizen, even though he has lived here since the late Sixties and has three American-born children who will have to live through the consequences to come. But at the end of the album, Young lets America speak for itself, in the choir’s Sunday-prayer-meeting delivery of “America the Beautiful.” There is no irony, anger or guitars, just faith and a final warning that until we truly live up to the perfection in the final verse — “Brotherhood/From sea to shining sea” — no one has the right to say, “Mission accomplished.”