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Positive Feedback ISSUE 26
july/august 2006


Neil Young - Living With War
by Ed Kobesky


Though not noted on the packaging, the CD is HDCD-encoded.

Hindsight is 20/20, as the saying goes. Neil Young's late entry into the debate on the Iraq war comes nearly two years after Steve Earle released "The Revolution Starts Now", a blistering indictment of the Bush administration that was funny, sad, compelling, thought provoking, and hard rocking. So much has been said on the subject between then and now that one wonders what Young hopes to add. Even the President has humbled somewhat, cautiously admitting a few mistakes here and there.

When Young confronts the front-page issues head-on, "Living With War" falters. "Don't need no Madison Avenue war," he sings on " The Restless Consumer", merely reiterating what we already know about this administration's powerful public relations machine. "Shock and Awe" recounts yet again the casualties of war, just in case you didn't know that women and children are dying, too. "Let's Impeach the President" and "Lookin' For A Leader" are satisfyingly long on ire but frustratingly short on insight.

Maybe Young's approach is the problem. While Steve Earle let characters do the talking—an American truck driver on a dangerous stretch of road near Basra, for example—Young mostly rants. Moreover, when Neil Young spills his guts, it doesn't sound much different from any Average Joe holding court at the local tavern. ("Let's impeach the president for spyin'/On citizens inside their own homes/Breaking every law in the country," he grouses on "Let's Impeach the President" .)

Yet other songs are undeniably compelling. The record's shortest track, "Families", covers tremendous ground in just over two minutes. "When you write your songs about us/Won't you try to do us justice/Because we want to be just like you and your families," pleads an Iraqi citizen, while an American soldier daydreams of his far-off homecoming and another family simultaneously sends their thanks to those on the battlefield. "Roger and Out" finds the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq over a room-shaking bassline, while "After The Garden" is a 60s-style peace anthem that's peppered with startling modern imagery, like watching the horrors of war in HDTV.

Lyrically, Young is preaching to the choir. He won't win any red state converts with words alone. Taken as a whole, however, "Living With War" works because it's fast and furious. The album's weak spots whiz by; carried along by some of the most urgent musical material Young has created since 1989's "Freedom". Listening to both, it's hard to believe they were recorded 17 years apart. Has anything really changed?

Well, one thing may have. Rock ‘n roll is less likely than ever to create or sustain a movement. Should that come as a surprise? The chasm between rich and poor continues to widen, Iraq and North Korea are increasingly worrisome, gas is $3 a gallon, and yet most Americans seem blissfully unconcerned, cruising down the highway in brand new, V-8 powered SUVs, Big & Rich blaring, partying like it's 1999. "Living With War" may be imperfect, but at least Young is still complaining after all these years.

Hastily written and recorded, "Living With War" brims with passion but it's no audiophile treasure. The CD is all fuzzy guitars and fittingly rough around the edges. It wraps up, hauntingly, with Young's own arrangement of "America the Beautiful". For all his conviction, Young knows that he's just one voice in a billion. He may not have added to the debate, but he has kept it going, at least for the moment.