The only constant in Neil Young’s decades of pointed political songs is that he’s bound to do some more, sooner or later. At times he responds to headlines. Other times he calls up distant historical events. He can tackle broad social changes or personal issues he’s been turning over in his head. He’s cozied up to Reagan and called to impeach Bush II. Whatever the source, these songs are never worked out treatises: they’re gut checks. And when he does 10 of them, as on his angry new “Living with War,” (Reprise) at least two or three are bound to hit your solar plexus.
Starting with the title number, the second track, “Living with War,” presents a simple, brilliant sound motif. Young wants to hammer home that he’s not a lone voice in the wilderness, so almost every song co-headlines the 100 Voices choir, and they do a sweet, rural-congregation version of “America the Beautiful” to end the album. Besides Young’s snarling, off-kilter guitar, the most prominent instrumental voice is the trumpet—playing taps, calling to arms, evoking the pride of the military.
The Iraq war pervades the record, but Young’s constant assault is on living with lies and living with closed eyes. The immediate keeper track is “The Restless Consumer” a doomy, lurid probe into hucksterism of war, oil, medicine and religious certainty. It transcends its fraught moment and enters the Young canon without a glance back. Elsewhere, he hits major chords with a family sending a son off to the Middle East in “Flags of Freedom,” prays for peace in “Living with War,” and offers a proper middle-aged warrior’s reflections in “Roger and Out.”
Young can be flat incisive: his suggestion to give Colin Powell a second chance is on-target provocative. When Young is corny, it’s his own breed of kernel. He thanks Bob Dylan (musically in “Flags”) and Phil Ochs for inspiration, and if anybody guffaws at that, tough.
Young has seen all the scenes and absorbed all the slings and arrows of fortune and misfortune without either burning out or fading away. This is what gives him his authority, which is not unlike that of the late Johnny Cash. When punkette Pink snaps at the Leader of the Free World, unsympathetic skeptics can flick her away. When Neil Young does it, it’s not so easy. Partly that’s because he’s gifted enough to let it rip without ever making a complete fool of himself.
In the last two verses of “Let’s Impeach the President” (itself a bracing, blunt title) he starts with a sharp couplet: “Let’s impeach the President for hijacking/Our religion and using it to get elected.” Excellent use of hijacking, and no attempt to be religiously inclusive. Young’s offended as a Christian. Then follows with two lines that simply bite the dirt: “Dividing our country in colors/And still leaving black people neglected.” But then the inveterate and genetic sports-nut takes over in Young and he finishes with caustic grace:
Thank God he’s cracking down on steroids
Since he sold his old baseball team
There’s lots of people looking at big trouble
But of course our President is clean
But what do I know? Back in 2000, I cheered Rage Against the Machine’s “Renegades” for pulling together diverse strains of protest music and showing how they shared the power of saying “no more” to official brutality and secrecy. It was overlooked as a mere farewell album of cover songs. And in 2004 I went to bat for Steve Earl’s ragged, rampaging “The Revolution Starts.”
Now, done almost as quickly and impulsively, comes Living with War (which should be known as the eight-day War). But that was back when being too pissed off was considered bad form and Earl got dismissed as though he’d lost the election as well. Grab those two oldies along with Young and the new releases by Pink and T-Bone Burnett and you will have the core of a modern soundtrack for subversives.