Agree with it or not, we need political records like Neil Young’s Living With War

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The debate had become predictable; maybe a little sad, too. An artist — Neil Young, who released Living with War on May 8, 2006 — was coming out with a protest record. You could hear the bluster from miles away. Folks twisted themselves into spittle-flecked knots in the attempt to dress down the album as insincere, misguided, vain, self-absorbed — go ahead, pick your own adjective. Add to this the obligatory “They’re just musicians; they should keep their mouths shut” line of reasoning and well, there’s your template for debate.

I’m not here to solve that problem. Heck, I’m pretty well sure that it can’t be. Not with the current level of divisiveness in the political environment. What I will say is that I like it when artists put out records that piss people off.

Neil Young does it. Pearl Jam does it. Lee Greenwood does it. Toby Keith does it. While I might not be aligned so much with the latter two musicians, their viewpoints are equally welcome.

One of the many functions of art is the expression of points of view. It’s inevitable. If you don’t like what’s being said, join the debate. But to suggest that the opinion shouldn’t be aired because “They’re only musicians” is to apply a restriction unevenly. Bono can’t talk about this stuff but George Will can? Take the opposite angle: Pro-war songs and/or direct support of the troops are generally acceptable. Really? They’re just musicians. Shouldn’t they keep their mouths shut, as well?

Neil Young, of course, is not known for keeping his mouth shut. In fact, his heart seems to be wide open with a direct line to his guitar and pen. The results, very much like all of our interior lives, are often spotty. I mean, I know that Trans was Young’s way of expressing his desire to communicate with his son Ben, who suffers from severe cerebral palsy, but that doesn’t make the record any less weird. On the other hand, Prairie Wind was a sincere reaction to a tough year in Young’s life — one that sits comfortably beside both Harvest and Harvest Moon.

Living With War found “Ohio”-era Neil Young sandblasting away at the problems he saw with America at that time, specifically, the war in Iraq and the political climate. The themes were what we’d expect to argue about: abuse of power, shadow governments, media overload, and political swagger. Much less confrontational were the ideas of how families deal with war, hope for future leaders, and pacifism.

Sonically, it was the electric side of Rust Never Sleeps-meets-Greendale. Thanks to the lack of the presence of Crazy Horse (don’t get me wrong, I love Crazy Horse), Living with War had a tighter feel than your average Neil Young rumblefest. On the other hand, it had a sense of urgency, given that it was recorded in a fairly spontaneous manner. Though Young has used horns on other records, the trumpet here was sometimes really creepy. On “Shock and Awe,” basically a reworking of “My My Hey Hey (Into The Black),” the horn faithfully reproduced the original melody line.

Living With War ended with the freaky Neil Young Choir singing “America The Beautiful.” It’s been said that this song should be our national anthem. I’d go for that. It is a beautiful country. Yet, it does has flaws — flaws that should be debated. Then, and now. If we can’t do that, then I do fear for our future.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he originated several of our weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Mark Saleski
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