- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2006

“Living with War,” Neil Young’s new 10-song collection of “metal-folk-protest” music, was written and recorded by the once-great rocker in just two weeks to fan the flames of anti-war and anti-Bush sentiment.

Boy, does it show.

Considering the president’s already Death Valley-low public approval ratings, it’s hard to understand why Mr. Young was in such a rush to pile on by pumping out this shrill polemic. He should have gone for quality, rather than quantity. If the best bits were collected from each of these 10 songs, there might be enough to hang one good song on.

The best that can be said for “Living with War” is that you get some OK slabs of that thick, grunge guitar Mr. Young used to such good effect on “Mirror Ball” in 1995.

In all fairness, the goal here apparently wasn’t to create great music, but rather, as the artist says, “to get the message out.” That message is about as subtle as a flying drumstick. It ranges from — how’s this for understatement? — “Let’s Impeach the President” (complete with unflattering samples of Bush speeches) to “Shock and Awe,” in which he decries “thousands of bodies in the ground, brought home in boxes to a trumpet’s sound.”

Stephen Stills recently told The Washington Times that he had initially been slated to work with Mr. Young on a new batch of protest songs to perform during this summer’s CSN&Y; tour. But when he got back from vacation, “Neil had already written and recorded the album.” Too bad, since Mr. Stills has caught his second wind with a fine new solo album, “Man Alive!” and might have helped rescue this shambles.

Mr. Young decided to take the bit between his teeth for this album when someone at a conference in Austin, Texas, said the anti-war movement needed a new “Ohio,” Mr. Young’s blistering musical reply to the Kent State shootings. The 60-year-old Mr. Young says he was hoping a much younger musician would be the one to write a new anti-war anthem. But, tired of waiting, he decided to write his own sequel — or more exactly, 10 of them.

This record doesn’t so much follow in the footsteps of the Woody Guthrie-Bob Dylan tradition as it does the John Lennon-Yoko Ono “audio newspaper” approach, which they employed on their lamentably bad “Sometime in New York City” double album.

Once upon a time, Mr. Young had a real flair for powerful protest songs, like “Ohio” and “Southern Man.” The latter, a searing — albeit melodramatic — potshot at racism in the South (Northern racists get a free ride), inspired one of the great “answer” songs in rock history: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”

“Living with War” is certainly a sharp left turn from Mr. Young’s last album, “Prairie Wind,” a gentle love letter to the Canadian prairie of his youth, dominated by acoustic, country-folk ballads. Such a radical change in direction is hardly new for Mr. Young. While at his early ‘70s pinnacle with “Harvest,” he followed it up with a string of highly uncommercial records.

As Mr. Young wrote in the liner notes of his “Decade” anthology, ” ‘Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road, and traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride, but I saw some interesting people there.”

I’ve always admired that attitude, if not the music. Now, with four wheels in the ditch, the mud is flying once again.

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