The war I’m living through right now is being fought between the critic and music fan inside me as I try to comprehend Neil Young’s much-hyped political electric opus Living With War. This is a record that was written and recorded less than two months ago, yet has already seen weeks of airtime on cable news tickers, reams upon reams of editorial newsprint, and the unholy collective bluster of a million bloggers. Clearly I have to give this one more thought than usual; the album has already been mythologized into more than an album. Living With War is an aural broadside, a beacon of light for the left and another potential straw man for the right. But is it good rock and roll?
The critic in me is skeptical from the outset. Living With War is declarative rather than evocative. And there’s nothing my inner critic hates more than blunt, declarative statements of feeling. In fact, lyrics like “Let’s impeach the president for lyin’ / Misleading the country into war” make my inner critic’s teeth shiver, regardless of my strong sympathy and shared politics. I’ve always thought it better to savor mystery and ambiguity in art—even art with clear intent and purpose—because they invite more discovery and deeper knowledge than the obvious. On the surface, Living With War is one giant echo chamber, telling me everything I’ve ever known and felt about politics since the fall of 2000. What’s the point of that? But after the initial surprise at the nakedness of Young’s lyrics, subtleties do emerge.
“Back in the days of ‘Mission Accomplished’ / Our chief was landing on the deck / The sun was setting on a golden photo-op.” Bush’s flight-suit fiasco and premature declarations of victory are common knowledge. But compare those lyrics from “Shock and Awe” with those from Young classic “Cortez the Killer”, “He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and guns / Looking for the new world / In that palace in the sun”, and a different message emerges, one far more urgent than partisan bickering. Living With War is not the “liberal media” or “Hollywood left” set to music. Young is simply following a tradition that includes Ochs, Dylan, and the Clash, but stretches back to Francis Scott Key and beyond, by elevating contemporary political events into the realm of myth. “The Star-Spangled Banner”, which Young quotes during “Living With War”, is essentially no different from “Shock and Awe”, a day-after account of events that have become important American symbols.
The real story of “Living With War” isn’t the sentiment of “Won’t need no Shadow Man runnin’ the government / Won’t need no stinking war”, or even the specific indictment of George W. Bush for “Spyin’ on citizens inside their own homes” and botching the hurricane relief efforts on the Gulf Coast. The story of “Living With War” is the sadness, rage, passion, and hope of one man finally boiling over and speaking out, damning the excuse-making, conciliatory Democratic Party by pointing out with blunt child-like innocence and gravity that the emperor has no clothes. Stephen Colbert’s doing it with humor; Neil Young’s doing it with rock and roll.
The music fan in me has been convinced by Living With War from the opener “After the Garden” right through the cover of “America the Beautiful”. The songs are infinitely more satisfying than Young’s last plugged-in affair, the lumbering, bewildering Greendale. Living With War is leaner, tougher, more melodic. “The Restless Consumer” hits with the blunt force of a hammer after an opening with idle strumming that sounds strangely enough like the Dirty Three. Young achieves the full potential of his songs as populist anthems by employing a hundred-voice choir to back the trademark brawn of his electric set up, calling out “Don’t need!” on the choruses while Neil rails against Madison Avenue, and the crass flood of pharmaceutical commercials, “Don’t need no TV ad tellin’ me how sick I am / Don’t wanna know how many people are like me / Don’t need no dizziness, don’t need no nausea / Don’t need no side effects like diarrhea and sexual death! / Don’t need no more lies!” Young’s voice is in fine form, full of humor, confidence, and a whole lotta pissed off—more than anything, it’s what carries the album.
The songs are mostly non-blues, minor chord-charged garage stompers in the vein of “Rocking in the Free World” and Mirrorball. The sound isn’t revolutionary, but it’s tuneful and surprisingly catchy. The shortest track, “Families”, is sweet and gentle despite the fuzz and feedback, as Young takes on the voice of a soldier overseas, “When you try to bring our spirit home / Won’t you celebrate our lives in a way / That’s right for our children and families / When you write your songs about us / Won’t you try and do us justice”. Young does, by injecting necessary humanity into stories that are dominated by collagen-enhanced and shellacked talking heads, and by challenging a political culture that simultaneously touts and erodes freedom of speech. “Flags of Freedom” tips its hat to Bob Dylan both musically and lyrically. Borrowing its melody from “Chimes of Freedom”, the song focuses on a young girl (listening on headphones to “Bob Dylan singin’ in 1963”) whose brother is shipping off to war. As the parade of men and women march down Main Street in a patriotic send-off, she catches a glimpse of the president giving a speech on “a flat-screen TV in the window of the old appliance store”. When she turns back to the parade, she’s missed her brother, a subtle indictment of how the allure of political rhetoric can distract from the human reality of war.
“Let’s Impeach the President” has received the bulk of the press surrounding Living With War, opening with “Taps” and featuring lines like “Who’s the man who hired all the criminals?” and “Let’s impeach the president for hijacking / Religion and using it to get elected”, though the most effective part of the song is when Young hands the microphone over to GW himself. Playing sound-bites of the president while shouting “flip” and “flop” in the background, Young parodies the Rove strategy to discredit John Kerry in the 2004 election. Here you get just some of the Bush classics like “All I can tell you is that Osama Bin Laden is a prime suspect”, “I don’t know where [Bin Laden] is… I just don’t spend that much time on it”, as well as “Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda” and “I know I didn’t say that there was a direct connection between September 11th and Saddam Hussein”. It’s not the album’s strongest song, but it is in many ways the fuel source of Living With War, with the implications of Bush’s own words lingering between every line.
It was inevitable that the media would be drawn to “Let’s Impeach the President” like moths to a flame, as the most sensational and Hannity-baiting cut on the record. But when introduced to the public for free-streaming on the internet, Young presented the record as a whole, without the option of skipping to one song or another. “Impeach” is just one distorted face in the album’s garage rock Guernica. In context, no song on Living With War is as simple as it may seem on its own—not a bumper sticker, not a pamphlet, not the slightest wrinkle in a Sunday morning pundit’s furrowed brow. It’s a direct shot into the national discourse from a rock world that has been largely silent until recently. Both halves of myself, the blue critic and the red rock fan, wondered if this album could ever be viewed as something other than a self-righteous pat on the back by either side of the political spectrum. But I’m convinced that the album is at heart a uniter, not a divider, and certainly not a decider. Regardless of one’s views on a given issue or politician, the fearless passion Young, band, and chorus all bring to Living With War is impressive enough to hopefully make these lyrics from “Families” its most talked about and repeated: “There’s a universe between us now / But I want to reach out and tell you how much you mean to me and my family / … I can’t wait to see you again in the U.S.A.”