Peace Trail offers Young's folkie assertiveness, but it could have benefited from more gestational time.
I fully expect Neil Young's next album to be a carefully composed orchestral suite, devoid of topical references and recorded over a period of several months. But not because that's likely to happen -- only because it would be happy confounding of expectations. At this point, Young is releasing music in a flurry. He has much on his mind, and much to say, and there's an urgency to get everything out there. His new album Peace Trail fits the model, with its of-the-moment lyrics joined to rambling songs performed with just bassist Paul Bushnell and well-versed session drummer Jim Keltner. At its best, Peace Trail offers Young's folkie assertiveness, but it stumbles enough to suggest it could have benefited from more gestational time.
While the cool opening title track sounds most like classic Young, it's the following number, “Can't Stop Working” that says more than it might want to. It reads at moments like a plea for forgiveness, but primarily confesses a need to keep busy. It could be a character study, but given Young's restless mind and constant output, it highlights the drive behind yet another album. For Young fans, that's not a problem – more music is good, especially while he's this engaged and you're comfortable discarding tracks. Others might find the process leading to diffuseness. Maybe fewer albums and a later collection of outtakes would serve Young better, even if that feels at odds with his current mission.
The new disc doesn't deliver anything truly great, but tracks here do fit well in Young's body of work. “Peace Trail” could be tighter, but it works, and “Show Me” uses a spare sound to explore a dissent general enough to flexible, but specific enough to be cutting. It tops its predecessor, “Indian Giver,” which is fine as a protest-of-the-moment number about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, but it's not developed enough to have legs. The trio still seems to be finding the song, and Young's concern that no one is sharing the news is just odd after a period where this particular news was inescapable. The pretty and personal folk meditation of “Glass Accident” balances the political, adding nice dimension to the album.
Young's weirdest moments help make the album memorable, and, while it would be nice if better songs did that work, the surprising turns keep multiple listens fresh. There's odd harmonica on “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders,” and there's the bizarre Auto-Tuned backing vocals to prevent “My Pledge” from being a comfortable acoustic number. The album ends with robotic talk on “My New Robot”, which feels a little like outdated kicking at contemporary life, but, particularly given the abrupt ending, also creates a sense that the whole album's a deliberate bit of chaos sprung on us.
Deliberate or not, the approach doesn't elevate a couple weak songs. “Texas Rangers” has some of Young's most annoying music, coupled with lyrics that never cohere. “John Oaks” spends five minutes telling a story, but feels like twice that. John Oaks serves as a Youngian archetype – a mellow, chai-drinking, weed-smoking “master of irrigation” who meets an untimely death thanks to quick-draw police. The song seems to divide the world into two, supporting half of it and blaming half of it, but it never says anything incisive enough to warrant its presence.
And that, unfortunately, affects too much of the album. Young's heart reaches out, but his music isn't keeping up with it, no matter how quickly he records it. The ramshackle sound would be fine -- even an asset -- with cutting lyrics. What we have is Young's quick thoughts and immediate tunes on a variety of topics. He's well suited for such an approach, but it doesn't quite work on Peace Trail. Fortunately, we probably won't have to wait long for the next unpredictable album.