- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Neil Young
Fork in the Road
Reprise Records

Depending on the depth and duration of the current recession, Neil Young’s latest album might be remembered as a prototype model of bailout rock.

Most of the 10 songs on “Fork in the Road” take a gritty, sardonic look at the economic landscape and its effects. There’s a kind of inchoate populism here — an us-versus-them motif that amalgamates Bruce Springsteen’s more fully formed post-industrial critique and Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s white-collar blues, “Taking Care of Business.”

On “Fork in the Road,” Mr. Young gamely, and with tongue in cheek, adds the plight of the recording artist to the chorus of populist rage, singing, “Big rock star/My sales have tanked/ I’ve still got you/ Thanks.” He also bluntly (and unprintably) gives his opinion on MP3 sound quality — a lyric that takes on added significance when you consider that Mr. Young first released the album for streaming via the social network MySpace.

His affection for cars is a major theme here as well. A known car guy, Mr. Young included in his early-career audience patter his story of buying a Rolls-Royce with an early residuals check. “Fuel Line” is essentially a three-minute commercial for the idea of electric-powered cars. The jagged edge of the guitar line that pulses through the songs is in sharp contrast to the whisper quiet Mr. Young promises from his ride. “Hit the Road,” meanwhile, complains about how the promise of hitting the open road in a tricked-out convertible isn’t what it once was.

Despite his hall-of-fame status, Mr. Young isn’t a classic-rock kind of guy. He never settled on a playing style he liked and repeated it endlessly for loyal fans. His work here builds on the style he developed for the score of the 1995 film “Dead Man.” With that, he was able to realistically conjure a kind of spooky, surreal electric guitar sound that seemed to fit the Old West motif of the movie despite the obvious anachronism. On “Cough Up the Bucks,” he flattens and distorts this style to create a kind of hip-hop rhythm.

The album’s first track, “When Worlds Collide,” kicks off like an ideal opener to a road-trip tape mix. Distorted guitar chords crunch like gravel on a spinning tire, and Mr. Young’s signature voice, still reaching for the upper registers, yelps and snarls.

Whether by design or not, Mr. Young’s lyrics sound a bit doddering and out of touch — especially in comparison to the topical songs from his early career, most notably “Ohio.” He sounds a little silly here when rapping, “Cough up the bucks,” just as he sounds a little silly on “Fork in the Road” singing, “Keep on bloggin’/ ‘Til the power goes out.”

Perhaps the real fork in the road is between the medium and the message. Mr. Young’s guitar riffs — grinding, resonant, still vibrant and original after more than 40 years of recording — are the driving force on this album.

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