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Neil Young, ‘Peace Trail': Album Review

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Reprise

While Neil Young‘s Desert Trip contemporaries wait 10 years or more to make records these days, the 71-year-old singer-songwriter still churns them out like a man a third his age. Actually, few artists of any age can keep up with Young’s prolific release schedule.

Peace Trail marks his seventh album this decade, eighth if you count Earth, the live-album-with-special-effects that came out earlier this year. And like that record and 2015’s The Monsanto Years — both made with the band Promise of the Real – Peace Trail revolves around environmental themes, completing a mid-’00s trilogy of discontent and anxiety.

Peace Trail approaches the same material from a different side. The Monsanto Years was all electric fury, with Promise of the Real coming on like a barnstorming Crazy Horse and Young spitting verses about ecological crises facing us over the next couple decades. Peace Trail is more plugged-in acoustic, recorded with a stripped-down band comprised of drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell. 

But the message is no less urgent. From the opening title track, a buzzing rumination on adapting to change or moving on altogether, to the closing “My New Robot,” which counters its future-fear theme with old-school harmonica, the album lacks the focus of Young’s most recent work. Most of the tracks were laid down in just a few takes, and it sure sounds like it at times.

The interplay here isn’t nearly as sharp as Young’s impromptu collaborations with Crazy Horse on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Rust Never Sleeps or Ragged Glory. There’s some rugged charm here, especially on “Peace Trail,” “Show Me” and “My Pledge,” which cut their acoustic foundations with electric jabs, but just as often, nobody seems to be on the same page regarding these songs (“Texas Rangers” skips over a basic beat that sounds like it never got out of a first-stab attempt, and “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders” is as clunky as its title).

It’s occasionally disorienting, maybe deliberately so, but it’s not like Young has catered to fans’ expectations anytime in the past 35 years. Peace Trail  puts its message above all else, and like Earth — which included overdubbed wildlife and other natural sounds combined with live performances by Young and Promise of the Real — it’s not too subtle.

Which is the point. In a year of political unrest and simmering tension among almost every racial, sexual and class category, Peace Trail is delivered in dire, matter-of-fact bulletins. “I think I know who to blame,” Young sings on one cut. And for 39 minutes, he points fingers, rarely stopping to sort through the mess. After all, there’s another record waiting to be made.

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