Album: Peace Trail
Artist: Neil Young
Released: December 9th, 2016
Highlights: Peace Trail, Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders, Glass Accident
Unquestionably, there is a certain beauty to the fact Neil Young, currently seventy-one years old, is still an extremely productive musician. While most of his generational peers have retired from music altogether, lived the past few decades comfortably sitting on the catalog they amassed during their heydays, or released new works at a sluggish pace, Young gave the world a whopping seven records of original material between 2010 and 2016. Detractors claim those releases are mostly lackluster, saying many of the songs and lyrics could have used more time and attention, and condemn Young for focusing on silly gimmicks, such as recording with a full-blown orchestra (“Storytone”) or inside a restored Voice-o-Graph from the 1940s (“A Letter Home”). Whereas fans admire Young’s restless spirit and browse through the numerous songs in search of gems, which in some records are sparse (“Storytone”) but in others appear in enough numbers to lift the album that houses them to greatness (“Psychedelic Pill”).
“Peace Trail” is the latest link added to that chain of productivity, and, unfortunately, by all imaginable measures, it gives fuel to those who see Neil Young as an old man whose idiosyncrasy has been amplified to extreme lengths due to the passing of time. Quite simply, very little about it is redeeming. Never has Young’s recently developed philosophy of recording albums within a few days been more blatant. Lyrically, “Peace Trail” is so undercooked it feels like much of what is sung was improvised on the spot; there is no poetry whatsoever, just a collection of sentences that could have been put together by anyone else in the world. In “Cant’ Stop Workin”, where Neil apparently tries to justify his invariably active persona, he sings “Well I can’t stop workin’ cause I like to work / When nothing else is going on”; and in “My New Robot”, he delivers a heavy-handed warning about how we are being controlled by technology by saying “My life has been so lucky / The package has arrived / I got my new robot / From amazon dot com”, and one cannot help but wonder if this is indeed the artist that talked about that same theme twenty-four years ago in the brilliant, disturbing, robotic, and poetic “Sample and Hold”.
The biggest crime committed by “Peace Trail”, though, does not lie in its lyrics – anyone closely following Neil Young knows he has been struggling with them for a while. The true disappointment comes in the songs’ arrangements and their melodies. The former are bare and simplistic, making it quite obvious Neil Young did not give his musicians and producer enough time to work on these songs, turning the album into a continuous fog of standard drumming, simple guitar strums, and shy bass lines. Such stripped-down setup could be forgiven if it served to highlight the beauty carried by the songs, but in supporting material that is weak (with the exception of the title track and “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders”) it actually reveals how poor the melodies are: they exhale the same laziness found in the lyrics, coming off as repetitive, uninspired, and hastily assembled.
For many years, “Landing on Water”, released in 1986 and in the midst of a decade when Young was sued by his own label for not sounding like himself, was considered to be, by many, the nadir of the artist’s career; a point in which the worst side of his freewheeling artistic behavior, which had also taken him to musical heights only achieved by a handful of human beings, came to the surface. It is hard to say if “Peace Trail” owns that dubious honor from now, but one thing is for sure: like a rant from a lovable grandparent who is losing touch with the world, it is strange, weird, awkward, and terrible. The old-man version of Neil Young can still do much better than this, as recent releases (such as 2015’s “The Monsanto Years”) have shown.