2009 / Music

Review: Neil Young’s ‘Fork’ Stalls Out As Gearhead-Talking Protest LP

Rock Legend Uses Car Metaphors To Tackle Economic Chaos

In an age of economic chaos, worry and fear, Neil Young isn’t the kind of artist who can be counted upon to rally our broken confidence despite his legendary reputation.

Photo: Reprise Records

Photo: Reprise Records

Sure, Young has occasionally demonstrated during his decades-long career that very rare ability of a songwriter capable of capturing our collective zeitgeist. “Ohio,” “Rockin’ In The Free World” and even the curmudgeonly “This Note’s For You” are testament to how Young has plucked an idea from the ether and lent powerful voice to unconscious dissatisfaction and unborn aspirations.

Young’s new record, “Fork In The Road,” tries half-heartedly to live up to those extraordinary standards. It squarely positions Young as the chronicler of the downtrodden during this Great Recession, striving to answer each blow and surge of outrage with passionate, noisy blasts of boogie rock and noble ballads.

Neil Young, however, isn’t always Neil Young (as erstwhile record industry power player David Geffen once discovered). Of the ’60s generation of master singer-songwriters — Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed — Young is the only one of the clique who has always remained the inscrutable wild card and come to personify artistic unpredictability. Not even Tom Waits can claim to be as much of a creative loose cannon as Young. This is mainly because Waits’ beautifully strange records largely conform to his persona as bard/sage of the junkyard jamboree.

Young, however, is rock’s most wishy-washy superstar, switching styles and personas over the years with the frequency of a tween’s Twitter update. He’s fleeted from project to project with few constraints. Masterpieces have followed clunkers and political works were quickly accompanied by highly personal song cycles. He’s toyed with country, blues, rockabilly and folk. He pioneered a kind of proto-grunge music and been the first of his middle-aged contemporaries to embrace synthesizers in the early ’80s. He’s been the plain-spoken critic of the establishment, but also appeared to embrace the role of jingoist rocker. He was a prima donna even while he was the premier member of rock’s biggest supergroup.

And so, just when seemingly every commodity in the marketplace is seeing its bedrock slide and disintegrate into sand, Young still represents one of the music industry’s most volatile, inconsistent brands instead of the guitar-carrying hero on the white horse.

Give Young credit for trying. “Fork In The Road” seeks to battle against the forces of bleakness and doubt that threaten to consume ordinary people’s lives, but often in the most odd ways. This isn’t a protest record. Instead, Young throws the huddled masses his latest curveball by echoing their anger and frustration through the prism of his obsession with cars. It’s 39 minutes of Young’s prettiest but most bristling tunes since the mid-’90s, weirdly pockmarked with lyrics full of silly shop talk and motoring clichés. What most of these songs really need is a tune up.

While press hype surrounding the record’s release says Young was inspired to write and record these songs after dabbling in electric car technology and converting his 1959 Lincoln Continental to a hybrid, Young also drew on the current economic downturn and American auto industry’s virtual collapse as source material to soup up his imagination. He ties these thoughts together with flimsy slogans backed by modified melodies borrowed from the old days, using little allegory apart from an implied ’50s romanticism of hitting the road with a hot rod. (“It’s all about my girl and my dream,” he sings.)

While the auto industry’s woes and what it means for that freedom of the road mythology might make Young’s record as a whole more apropos, he is at his strongest on “Fork In The Road” when he’s dispenses with the greasy monkey jargon and talks tough about the current economic situation. His anger, sometimes expressed in clumsy ways, is still palatable and more plainspoken that we might have expected.

The album’s title track muddies up the chord sequence from the Them’s “Gloria,” which Young augments with some flailing guitar chops that sound like a hiccup fit. The ramshackle rhythm notwithstanding, Young wants to gather the tribes. “There’s a bailout coming but it’s not for you,” he hisses. “It’s for all those creeps/Hiding what they do.” Young’s longtime crony, steel guitarist Ben Keith, throws in some understated, mid-frequency whinnies as Young tries to impress us with a sputtering solo.

Equally indignant is “Cough Up The Bucks.” The message isn’t much deeper than that, but the track seethes with crotchety rancor because of Young’s hacking guitar licks. His trademark caveman guitar style imbues this cut especially with a gristly feel that’s perfect for populist rage. Unfortunately for Neil, these songs are too mundane for anyone to be singing them at a march.

Best of all Young’s attempts to speak to working families’ hearts is the acoustic ballad “Light A Candle,” which is more mellow and reflective than the ham-fisted attempts at rabble rousing. Keith’s mournful steel guitar is given the most room to explore the spare melody, which harkens back to the feel of Springsteen’s all-acoustic “The Ghost Of Tom Joad.” Like those songs, “Light A Candle” is a tribute to the Okies of the Great Depression and ultimately meant to inspire hope. While Young’s sensitive vocals are often clouded by dislocation and pain, he ultimately keeps his focus as narrator on the horizon where opportunity springs anew.

Grand purposes aside, Young spends most of his creative energy trying to graft his “American Graffiti” fantasy into the modern era and promote environmentalism. First, besides just talking about recycling, Young wants to reuse others’ music, too. “When Worlds Collide” steals an AC/DC riff while “Johnny Magic” puts a new spin on a Tom Petty melody.

“Even worse is how he continually praises his new ride in the silliest ways. Young can’t whitewash wrecks like “Fuel Line,” a chugging ode to his converted car. In reality, the song is a tacky infomercial for his converted charge, set to a Vegas-ready rock rhythm. “She’s not the car she used to be,” Young calls out, before gushing about his prize more like a slimy salesman than an embarrassing early-adopter. “She runs so quiet,” he hollers in that familiar Young whine. He finally hits rock bottom when he boasts how little gas the car requires: “She doesn’t use much though/And that’s smart for a car.” Really, we should have seen this coming. It’s his latest flip-flop. Young, who was once fervently against artists leasing their songs for commercials, has now taken to writing thinly disguised jingles.

“Get Behind The Wheel” is a bit better, but has a wheezy, Texas blues swing likely appropriated from Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Double Trouble. Ordinarily, this rhythm might allow the singer to seduce the woman of his dreams or rue a love that did him wrong. Young, however, yelps out a few silly verses about his latest obsession: Surprise! It’s his car. He gets a little help from a few sly backup singers (including his wife) who chime in to give the chorus a little extra pep. After the chorus, a listener might easily expect to hear Vaughn come ripping through the electric blues hum with some Stratocaster shredding. Instead, we get Young’s trademark guitar break, full of squeals and quacks like he was giving lessons to Jack White. It’s non-offensive, but Young needs to ask himself what dusting off some 12-bar blues really contributes. It suggests Young is more out of touch than effective at reaching out.

Near the album’s conclusion and with sublime, distorted blasts of “Cinnamon Girl”-like chords ringing, Young might be poised to admit the folly of this album’s endeavor. “Just singing a song won’t change the world,” Young confesses, but listeners shouldn’t believe him. If his history tells us anything about Young it’s that besides his erratic nature, he’s also true believer in whatever his fickle heart sets itself on at that moment. His best songs have changed the world and an album full of dumb gearhead talk won’t eclipse it, but also can’t change it.

For More Info:

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s