Album: Living with War
Artist: Neil Young
Released: May 2nd, 2006
Highlights: After the Garden, Living with War, Shock and Awe, Roger and Out
As history tells, “Living with War” started coming together as an album when Neil Young, while in a hotel somewhere in Ohio, caught a glimpse of a newspaper whose cover carried a headline related to the then on-going Iraq War. Above the picture of a wounded soldier inside a surgery room located on an airplane that was flying the man back to Germany, the text lauded the medical advances that were being achieved amidst the conflict, coldly overlooking the drama and sadness of a human being struggling to stay alive as a result of a futile campaign. Moved by that underlying trivialization of life, Young went back to his room and started writing songs intensely, with many of the tunes coming to him simultaneously given the urgency of the message he wanted to send and the mighty power of the emotional state he found himself in. For a while, Young – an artist that, since the sixties, had never been afraid to call out politicians – had intentionally held back from producing tracks related to the war, as he felt that it was up to a newer generation of composers to rise in protest against it. However, since time had passed without the appearance of any significant stance regarding the matter, Young quickly headed for California, gathered a group of musicians, and walked into the studio to pour his soul into the tapes, assembling – in a boldly immediate way – the ten cuts that form “Living with War”.
Just like taking shots against powerful men who wear suits, recording in a rushed approach was – at that point – far from being new to Young, as his early career is filled with songs and sometimes entire albums, such as “Tonight’s the Night”, that are famous not only for their quality, but also for being put together on the spur of the moment, maintaining – therefore – the rough edges of first takes and intoxicated sessions. Similarly to those efforts, “Living with War” certainly displays quite blatantly it was haphazardly constructed. Firstly, because it sounds like Neil Young by the numbers, meaning that the work puts little effort when it comes to breaking into fresh musical ground; its ten tunes are, without exception, carried by mid-tempo guitars that, despite having a very dirty tone, are played in simple, delicate, and clear strums. Secondly, because there is little to no variation in the compositions, as they are all centered around basic chord changes that repeat themselves over and over again, with some choruses occasionally showing up to throw some energy into the steady machine. And finally, because Young sings lyrics that are so direct, leaving any sort of subtlety or metaphors out of the table, that he sometimes dates the tunes badly, as it happens most notably in the fun and rowdy “Let’s Impeach the President”, where audio excerpts of George W. Bush’s interviews are used to portray how the then-president changed his mind constantly and often contradicted himself, and in “Looking for a Leader”, where both Obama and Colin Powell are directly cited as potential future presidents that will be able to get the United States running again.
In spite of generating those shortcomings, the approach Neil Young took in the writing and recording of “Living with War” also bears positive results, and it is arguable that the good outweighs the bad. The emotional trigger that led to the album is very much alive in the way the tracks are executed, as the songs materialize through fiery performances by both the band and Young, and the latter – in particular – does some astounding guitar work and singing. He delivers a couple of remarkable solos that are as dirty as they are moving; he disrupts the firm and fixed instrumentation of many tracks with some of his signature noisy outbursts; and he sings with the same sort of immediate urgency that hit him in that Ohio hotel, for as the words transit between being angry, hopeful, and sad, his voice follows spectacularly, making “Living with War” sound – above all else – genuine. No amount of force and honesty, however, could make for a satisfying listen if the tunes themselves had no value, and regardless of how they are not exactly surprising or inventive, it is impossible to deny that Young came up with loads of excellent melodies for the album, meaning that as the guitars stay locked in straightforward and constant chord changes, listeners are likely to be touched by how the words are being broadcast.
“Living with War” is, consequently, a record packed to the brim with hooks. And like Bob Dylan, from whom he clearly borrows the melody of “Chimes of Freedom” to give birth to “Flags of Freedom”, Neil uses those catchy turns repeatedly throughout the songs as a way to connect the many verses of his compositions. It is, other than an acknowledging of the quality of those hooks, a nod to folk protest music, as many of the work’s tracks feel like they were made to be sung by protesters that march together for the same cause. In fact, that quality is so evident that “Living with War” features a very prominent choir that joins Young either for entire songs, as it happens with the title track, or for the strongest melodic moments of most of the other tunes. It is a production choice that may, despite its thematic suitability, be seen by some as cheesy – and these will be happy to know that the album has a stripped down version, dubbed “Living with War: In the Beginning”, which removes that and other extra accompaniments. Still, the choir has the effect of bringing an additional doses of wide-reaching anger to many of the cuts found in “Living with War”, augmenting the emotional punch of a package that is already quite powerful and highlighting the qualities of a very consistent late-career effort. An album that, in spite of its punctual problems, simultaneously holds some best angry and beautiful moments of Young’s discography, and also the rushed and ragged vibe that has always made him such an interesting, independent, true, and wild artist.