Music

Neil Young: Fork in the Road

"Light a Candle" distills Neil Young's efforts to promote and pursue zero-emissions fuel technology into something haunting and beautiful. Unfortunately, Fork in the Road features nine other songs.


Neil Young

Fork in the Road

Label: Reprise
US Release Date: 2009-04-07
UK Release Date: 2009-04-06
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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.

4

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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