[6 April 2009]
Consider for a moment that the word “inspiration” means, etymologically speaking, the act of breathing in, something human beings must accomplish non-stop, without thinking, to exist. Although creative types like to talk about “waiting for inspiration” to strike, it’s nice to be reminded of the word’s origin and realize that inspiration, as an ideal, is all around us. To live, we must constantly be inspired. Take that, writer’s block! However, as tantalizing as the idea of unhindered creativity may be to those of us who labor to see our artistic endeavors through, there is a flipside to letting whatever strikes one’s fancy strike an actual chord, and its name is Neil Young’s Fork in the Road.
Young’s latest is a concept album about his LincVolt project, a zero-emissions auto technology that will reduce dependency on oil, and by extension war, environmental destruction, etc. Worthy? Yes. Interesting in theory? Sure. Unfortunately, with a few notable exceptions, the ten-song record comes off as enthusiastic but hasty, and the pretext for writing most songs far more involved and involving than the songs themselves.
Of course, it’s universally acknowledged that Neil Young has long been able to do pretty much whatever the hell he wants, and the fact that he always has, has resulted in no less than a dozen or so timeless albums. But it’s led to more than few forehead-slappers as well. Young has a fairly easy relationship with his muse; when he’s passionate about something, songs come flooding out and he doesn’t waste time worrying about whether they’re breaking new ground or even if they’ll resonate with John and Jane Q. Fan. This is an enviable position in many respects. Fork in the Road’s “Light a Candle”, for instance, takes a handful of minor chords, the famous proverb about lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness, a dash of pedal steel, and weaves it all into something gorgeous.
At first, there’s nothing particularly striking about “Light a Candle”, just some naked acoustic strumming and Young’s familiar high warble, but it soon opens up into a slightly larger arrangement, subtly layered with backing vocals and piano. It’s haunting and intimate, but more importantly, it distills the album’s entire mission in a few direct yet poetic lines. “When the light of dawn is on us / We will see what we can be / And the ancient ones can sleep an easy sleep / In the hallways of the ages / On the road to history / What we do now will always be with us,” he sings, positioning the movement for zero-emissions technology in an epic, historical context that might sound like grandstanding on the page, but projects gentle wisdom in the song. It’s a mellow call-to-arms, but all the more effective due to its lack of cantankerousness and even more because it boasts an actual melody.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for much of the rest of the album. Though its intro is exciting enough with its squawking, scraping guitar, “Fuel Line” doesn’t have much more to recommend it, as Young’s voice riffs around one keening note, “The awesome power of electricity / Stored for you in a giant battery!” and a chorus of backing vocals (singing “Keep filling that fuel line / Keep filling that old fuel line”) aims for groovy but ends up sounding goofy. Worse is “Cough Up the Bucks”, whose opening measures sound nearly identical to “Fuel Line”, but with an awkward syncopated reading of the title. The rough, grinding quality of the instrumentation fits with the intended immediacy of the project, but the songs themselves sound half-finished and half-considered.
From the album’s cover, which looks like it was taken with a cell phone camera, to the charmingly lo-fi videos that have accompanied and advertised it, Fork in the Road feels meant to capture a moment in time when the idea of “change” has rarely felt more tangible or urgent. But Young’s best music, from “Ohio” to “Tonight’s the Night” to “Rockin’ in the Free World”, has always transcended the moment. Fork in the Road is as uncompromising as any of his past records in that there’s never any doubt that Young is following his own whims and wishes. It’s just a shame that its quick flash nature makes an earnest pursuit feel more like a frivolous, fleeting obsession.