Sometimes Neil Young makes music for the ages; other times – as on his second album of 2016, following June’s folk-absurdist amalgam Earth – Young makes music for the news cycle.
Recorded in four days, Peace Trail contains casual social and political observations set to folk tracks improvised alongside drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell. Young’s latest batch of tunes righteously rebuke the Dakota Access Pipeline, trigger-happy cops, environmental malfeasance and smartphone zombies.
There’s not an “Ohio” in the bunch but Young’s grizzled jeremiads can be endearing. The title track, a melodically glorious paean to existential uncertainty festooned with scrumptious electric guitar, evokes a “rainbow teepee sky.” Peace Train also has revealing personal moments. “Can’t Stop Working” offers a hint into what continues to drive Young’s obsessive determination to keep writing and recording; the 71-year-old, who’s dodged plenty of health issues over the course of his life, sings about persevering himself through productivity: “Well I can’t stop workin’/’cause I like to work when nothin’ else is goin’ on.” And those interested in Young’s feelings regarding his recent divorce will find clues, if not answers, in “Glass Accident,” wherein he refuses to pick up the pieces.
When it comes to politics, Young comes off high on outrage but low on specifics. In the blues-vamping Standing Rock songs “Indian Givers” and “Show Me,” Young points his finger at faceless “big money” while yearning for someone to “bring back the days when good was good,” among other homilies. In the long, casually delivered talking blues track “John Oaks,” a chai-drinking, weed-smoking irrigation expert is shot by mistake when his truck backfires. And “Texas Rangers” confusingly seems to both praise and condemn its titular mythic Western heroes over one of the less elegant guitar riffs to ever grace a Neil Young album.
Beginning as one of Young’s trademark acoustic love serenades, concluding track “My New Robot” morphs suddenly into a callback to Trans, his formerly disparaged but currently lauded 1982 experiment in electronic dystopia. The arrival of a package from Amazon – and guess what’s inside – abruptly transforms the tune into a Black Mirror episode, but the vocoder programming instructions and references to colorblindness are real head scratchers. Another track, “My Pledge,” has an older gentleman griping wistfully about people “walkin’ with their eyes looking’ at the screen.” Songs like these are minor Neil, but minor Neil is better than no Neil at all – which, considering his output this century, doesn’t seem like a dystopia we’re going to have to deal with too soon.