Under 30

I can't complain but sometimes I still do

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Thoughts on geezer protest music

Neil Young’s “Living With War” has been described as the first blog album, and that sounds about right: It is a passionate, hastily written, inflammatory and Web-centric work with little chance of having any lasting value.

And not only because songs like “Let’s Impeach the President” and “Shock and Awe” are so obviously tied to this moment in time. Young got specific after the Kent State shootings with “Ohio” and ended up with an anomaly, a topical song that stood the test of time. What makes “Living With War” ultimately disposable is the generic guitar rock Young wrote to go along with his undeniably heartfelt lyrics. With the exception of the album-opening “After the Garden,” “Living With War” just isn’t very good.

Unlike rock albums, blog posts aren’t meant to be looked at more than once. Repeat viewings make plain the typos, the gaps in logic and the lack of depth. You admire the writer’s spunk but wish he had an editor.

In the case of Young, who rushed “Living With War” out to stores (mostly online) a few weeks after writing and recording it, somebody should have suggested ditching the 100-person choir that drones tunelessly over his fired-up vocals on most songs. And what’s with the out-of-tune trumpet bleating in out of Neil’s still-wondrous guitar solos? (It renders the title track an unlistenable embarrassment.) Another month in the studio might have convinced Young to pare down the musicians to his core power trio, and the songs to a powerful EP.

But Young would have lost some immediacy in the process, and immediacy likely is more important to him. Besides, it’s not as if most people are receiving “Living With War” as a mere rock ‘n’ roll record. Rolling Stone gave it four stars, and while such things are subjective, I can’t believe the left-leaning magazine would have been so kind if, say, Toby Keith put out a passionately sloppy pro-war album.

I respect Young for speaking his mind. I just wish he had better hooks. That’s the secret of great protest music: Polemics are fine, but catchy polemics are better and stick with people longer. Bruce Springsteen heeded this on his new geezer protest record, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions.” By cutting classic folk songs live and loose in the studio with a roomful of more than a dozen musicians, Springsteen achieved the communal spirit Young strives for but in the service of memorable tunes.

Springsteen, who made one of the bleakest party-hearty classic rock albums ever with “Born in the U.S.A.,” marries desperate lyrics with celebratory music better than anybody. One of my favorite songs right now is “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” Springsteen’s rollicking adaptation of a Negro spiritual about inevitable Armageddon on the horizon. “God gave Noah the rainbow sigh/‘No more water but fire next time’/Pharaoh’s army got drowned/O Mary don’t you weep.” Kind of makes “Let’s Impeach the President” sound trite, don’t you think?

("We Shall Overcome" could go down as the most universally-liked album of the year. I'm amazed at the number and range of people who already own and love it, everybody from teenagers to 50something baby boomers.)

Springsteen hasn’t sounded this vital on record in nearly 20 years, and even Young is a lot more exciting than he has been lately. Perhaps this explains why the latest protest music is coming from rock’s old guard. When Pearl Jam, the Dixie Chicks and Bright Eyes rail against the war, people get turned off. When Young and Springsteen do it, it reignites the public’s interest in aging millionaire rockers. Compare media attention for “Living With War” to what Young’s last few albums received. Who knew being courageous could be so commercial?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i tell ya -- the problem with neil young is all those songs about horses and rainbows.

10:20 PM  
Anonymous cheddar said...

Steve, you seen "Gunner Palace"? Or heard any of the rap tracks American soldiers who served in Iraq made?

I'm not being trite, these are honest questions. I haven't either, so I was wondering if you had a line on any of that stuff.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Springsteen and Neil Young seem to be getting the most press about their anti-war stance these days but there is actually lots of really great war-related music thats been kicking around for more than a year, for instance "The Future Soundtrack for America."

And there's newer stuff that has yet to really get it's due, like Josh Ritter. His track "Girl in the War" is a vital and interesting look at the war. Totally worth your atttention.


2:10 PM  
Anonymous Jim B. said...

Don't forget about Steve Earle. He was writing protest songs long before anyone had even thought that maybe this war was wrong.

3:21 PM  
Blogger FreeThinker said...

Hey, nice review, nice perspective. I dig Neil Young, and I dig Living With War. I just wrote a review on my blog.



1:03 AM  

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