THE GRADE B
BOTTOM LINE A passionate, but uneven, collection of protest songs
There are plenty of reasons that protest songs from major-label artists these days are few and far between.
The deep divisions in the country mean that artists who take any sort of political stand risk alienating half their audience. And the music industry’s ever-dwindling sales only raise the stakes whenever artists want to express potentially controversial views.
Of course, none of this applies to Neil Young. Young always speaks his mind and that is evident on his new album, “Peace Trail” (Reprise).
He explains his plan in the title track, singing, “The world is full of changes and sometimes all these changes make me sad. But I’ll keep plantin’ seeds till something new is growin’.”
Because nearly all of the album has a folk feel — performed by Young, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell — it is driven mostly by the lyrics, in which Young takes on everything from the Standing Rock protest (“Indian Givers”) to xenophobia (“Terrorist Suicide Hang-Gliders”) to police brutality (“John Oaks”) to, well, robots and technology (“My New Robot”).
For this album, Young’s style is straightforward, often calling to mind “Ohio,” one of rock’s greatest protest songs. However, the songs here lean more toward prose, as they did in last year’s “The Monsanto Years,” than the poetry of that classic. “They said he had a pistol when the old pickup backfired and shot him there behind the wheel,” Young sings in “John Oaks,” a tale about a businessman who protests on behalf of his workers. “And then John Oaks expired.”
He fares better in the more abstract “Show Me,” where Young has a bit more swagger and the song has an actual groove, and in “Can’t Stop Workin’,” where he sings about what keeps him going.
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“Peace Trail” is yet another risk for Young and in some ways that is enough of a reward for him.