Neil Young ‘Peace Trail’ – Review

28 Jan

Neil young’s recent work has largely been directed at people who think they have the veteran singer-songwriter pinned down. We can apply a multitude of superlatives to his recent discography, all suggestive of his unpredictable nature; he’s given us his longest and freakiest jams (2012’s ‘Psychedelic Pill’), his sweetest love songs (2013’s ‘Storytone’), his most experimental guitar work (2010’s ‘La Noise), his rawest recordings (‘A Letter Home’) and his most unexpected covers (‘Americana’, a collection of strange, largely forgotten folk songs). Of course, all this was at the expense of consistency – the only common link among the albums being Neil’s resolute outlook, instinctual guitar shredding and distinctive voice.

He continues in that inconsistent vein on ‘Peace Trail’, possibly the least substantive Young record since his late 80s fallow years. His second release of 2016 after the semi-live protest album ‘Earth’, ‘Peace Trail’ is every bit as scatterbrained and off the wall as we’ve come to expect modern Neil Young records to be. But it’s also much less memorable than prior albums, and judging by the lacksidasical melodies and half cooked arrangements, that might have been the point. For this record he assembled the duo of Jim Keltner and Paul Bushnell To help out; and this small band are decidedly not Crazy horse, Promise of the Real, the Stray Gaters or CSNY. They are a seasoned yet ramshackle duo who clearly have no interest in pre-learning arrangements or mastering their parts (and Young surely had no interest in teaching them). To put it nicely, this makes for one of the loosest albums I’ve heard in a long long time. In the right circumstances and with the right songs this could have made for a classic album, here it just makes for a half baked one.

Then again you never go to Neil Young for a polished pop sound. These tracks were recorded mostly live, probably very shortly after they were written, and that lends them a certain directness. His singing is passionate and meaningful, his lyrics are vitriolic and full of clear intent. The throaty wail of Old Black rips in to the title track and you could instantly be listening to a Neil Young song from forty years ago (you kind of wish some of this unbridled passion would find its way in to a few more of these laid back sideways songs). When it works, it works and by now Neil has a good nose for what does and doesn’t. But he does love shaking things up and playing with the tension between familiar and new. At times he gets the balance spot on (‘Peace Trail’), at other times he surely goes too far, as on ‘My New Robot’. By his nature Young is unpredictable but even the more knowing Neil Young fans, familiar with his vocoder experiments of the early 80s, will surely be surprised by the presence of auto tune vocals and references to Amazon.com that we find on this song. But of course there is subtle humour at work here, and on a couple of the other songs, that cuts through some of the occasionally tiresome political rhetoric. Young’s politics are admirable and right on but he’s surely too relaxed to make any meaningfully broad impact with these songs.

‘Peace Trail’ is unique (weird) enough to justify its release but Neil Young albums appear so frequently these days that they never feel like events or comebacks. This one in particular, hot on the heels of the well publicised ‘Earth’, feels particularly insubstantial and unimportant. Which is a shame because it tries to speak to important causes that deserve attention. As glorious as it is to have one of the greatest songwriters in such a prolific mood, it might be worth sitting on his next project for a bit longer. His message is apt, but his delivery is rushed and – dare I say – lazy.

5.5/10

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