Protest music: is it simply a quirk of the Sixties, or is the urge to bridle at injustice a more universal presence in Western adolescence? Such is the question raised by Neil Young's new album of anti-war, anti-Bush tirades. He was, he says, waiting for some young singer to write these kinds of song, but realised it was in vain. "Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the Sixties generation."
He may be right. In America at least, movements such as No Nukes have mostly involved the same hippie generation that fought for civil rights in the Sixties. Save for a few examples - REM, Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and more recently Bright Eyes and Kanye West - American rock has been either pathetically fantasist (heavy metal), sulkily self-centred (grunge) or simply bought off by materialism (hip-hop). Such protests as there have been against the Iraq wars, Camp X-Ray and the Patriot Act have come from old-timers like Springsteen and Crosby Stills & Nash. The young, it appears, are too distracted by the shiny and superficial to be bothered with politics.
Not this Young, though. Living with War finds him at the angrier end of his emotional spectrum. There are withering attacks on G W Bush in tracks such as "Shock & Awe" and "Let's Impeach the President", while a broader sense of regret underpins songs like "Restless Consumer" and "Living with War". Streaked with Byrds-y electric 12-string leads, the latter pointedly borrows "the rocket's red glare" and "bombs bursting in flight" from the US national anthem, while "Restless Consumer" condemns both the spin that results in "boxes covered in flags that I can't see on TV" and the budgetary preference for war over medical aid.
"Let's Impeach the President" is the most effective track, demanding Bush's removal for "lying, and mis-leading our country into war", and for enabling phone and e-mail surveillance in the name of homeland security. Elsewhere, "Roger and Out" is a maudlin tribute to a soldier friend, and "Flags of Freedom" offers disillusion at soldiers marching off to war, the old imperial assumptions drained of moral certainty.
Young's style throughout is a kind of lumbering, declamatory rock he refers to as "metal folk". It's in the vein of his work with Crazy Horse, and a powerful sound at its best, but singularly lacks the infectious charm of a song like "Rockin' in the Free World". One senses that he was so driven by urgency - the whole album was written and recorded in under a fortnight - he didn't have the time to come up with the great melodies which the issues demand. Still, at least he's trying.
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