Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rebel Yell


Living With War

A rock immortal, joined by a choir of 100, shouts "Bush sucks!"

Keyed to the stalwart "Let's Impeach the President," Neil Young's first protest album has proven the greatest publicity coup of his four-decade career. The 60-year-old has hardly been in hiding: 2003's Greendale and 2005's Prairie Wind came with a rock opera stage show and a general-release concert film, respectively, and the brain aneurysm that almost killed him in between was no secret either. But Living With War, written and recorded in about two weeks and streamed gratis to hundreds of thousands of website visitors before its May 9 rush release, hit the bull's-eye. With Bush's approval ratings at Rumsfeld levels, Young is shouting what his fans long to hear: Alicia Morgan, one of the 100 choristers who join in on some tracks, said: "I've never been at a recording session that was more like being at church. Heck, I've never been to a church that was more like a church than that session."

Not that the album is less than spontaneous and heartfelt. Though you wouldn't think so from the incantatory Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young single "Ohio," Young's rapid response to the 1970 Kent State shootings, he has never been a lefty, just a curmudgeonly democrat with a small "d." He best expressed his respect for ordinary Americans (including Canadians) on the patriot's credo of 1980's modest, even-handed Hawks & Doves: "If you hate us, you just don't know what you're sayin'." He liked Ronald Reagan's small government ideas and generated another rapid response, "Let's Roll," for the heroes of 9/11's Flight 93. But he never cottoned to the patrician ways of either Bush, and since his embrace by grunge has made less of normality and more of his longtime hippie identification. Too knotty to be called a tract, Greendale is nonetheless very ecology-minded.

As a kind of transition, War begins with the ecology-minded refrain "After the garden is gone." But the song's third line is "Won't need no stinkin' war," and in no time Young is whaling on such depressingly ancient themes as young men sent off to kill or be killed, and different sides flying different "flags of freedom." Other lyrics specify Iraq, notably "Shock and Awe," "golden photo-op" and all. Rampaging consumerism comes under attack. And two songs are name-namingly topical.

The issue-citing "Let's Impeach the President" has flaws as a legal brief--unfortunately, neither "lying" nor "hijacking/Our religion" qualify as high crimes and misdemeanors, though "spyin'/On citizens inside their own homes" does. But "Lookin' for a Leader" even nominates replacements for the president he wishes would go away. Given Young's life-long reluctance to emulate African-American rhythms, it's striking that both are black--and that one is Democrat Barack Obama and the other Republican Colin Powell.

People want to love this record, and why not? It's brave, and it's needed. So some may imagine that its indifference to studio polish marks a return to the grunge-certified peaks of 1990's Ragged Glory or even 1979's Rust Never Sleeps. That's wishful thinking. Young plays electric guitar, but there are no solos of any consequence. So as is usual in protest music, music itself is problematic. Pounding high in the mix, drummer Chad Cromwell could make a sensitive soul long for the delicacy of Crazy Horse's Ralph Molina, and the melodies share this sledgehammer quality. What gives the music a distinct flavor is the validating chorus--not content to preach to the choir, Young lets the choir preach for him. The small-town tableau of "Flags of Freedom" is subtly drawn, the antimodern diatribe "The Restless Consumer" crankily scattershot, but no one would call either enigmatic. On every track right up to the a-cappella-times-100 "America the Beautiful," Young wants his message to be understood. If that means his protest album doesn't stand the test of time, fine. First let's make sure there'll be more time.

Blender, July 2006