Monday, 11 August 2014
"Love is love, hate is hate, now is now and late is late, truth is fiction, truth is lies, strange things happen when worlds collide" "The world is ready for a whole new game, but some old timers wanna stay the same" "She's not the car she used to be, she wants to take you to our destiny" "You can play your guitar, see where it goes, send this song to as distant star while the rhythm explodes, just singing a song won't change the world" "She burst from the garage in a blaze of silence, disappearing down Douglas at lightning speed, she was gone before the garage door was down" "When the day is done, and the sun is sinking low, when you see the light, and you've been most everywhere you go" "Someone's trying to find the people's fuel, no fear of failure for that crazy fool" "Instead of cursing the darkness, light a candle for where we're going, there's something ahead worth looking for, when the light of time is on us we will see our moment come, and the living soul inside us will carry on" "It's a chance to give new meaning to every move we make, through the caverns in the caves we come from" "In the hallway of ages, on the road to history, what we do now will always be with us" "Got a pot belly, it ain't too big, gets in my way when I'm working my rig" "About this year we salute the troops, they're all still there in a fucking war, it's no good, whose idea was that?" "I've got hope, but you can't eat hope, I'm not done, not giving in, not cashing in, too late" "There's a bailout coming but it's not for you, it's for all those creeps who keep on hiding what they do" "I'm a big rock star though my sales have tanked, but I still got you, thanks!" "There's a fork in the road ahead, don't know which way I'm gonna turn"
Neil Young "Fork In The Road" (2009)
When Worlds Collide/Fuel Line/Just Singing A Song/Johnny Magic/Cough Up The Bucks//Get Behind The Wheel/Off The Road/Hit The Road/Light A Candle/Fork In The Road
The first decade of the 21st century was a strange time to be a Neil Young fan. We had the blues album, the ecological soap opera, the farewell to Neil's dad and the anti-war polemic. What could Neil possibly release to round his strangest decade yet (even with the 1980s 'Geffen' years?) A concept album about Neil's 1959 Lincoln Continental being used a guinea pig for conversion from running on petrol fumes to battery power - that's what! The moment this record was announced was the time when I, as a near-enough life-long Neil Young fan, did something I thought I'd never do: I stopped buying his albums. Now, clearly, I didn't do a very good job at keeping to my word or this review you're about to read would be awfully short and, yes, I did finally relent earlier this year after finding this record at a price I could actually afford without having to mortgage my website and/or Max The Singing Dog. I also rescinded on my original deal long enough to buy 'Psychedelic Pill' (reviewed last year; generally speaking very good) and 'Americana' (half-heartedly reviewed last year; generally speaking abysmal). The thing was, I don't think I was alone in feeling a sense that Neil was simply churning out albums for the sake of them by 2009 - notwithstanding the fact that 'Prairie Wind' was a real return to form and that 'Living With War' said absolutely all the right things (if not always ion the right way). Traditionally cars don't bring out the best in Neil despite being one of his favourite subjects: 'Motor City' is a candidate for his most misguided song and only an album before we'd hat to sit through 'Chrome Dreams II', a record almost as dull as it's front cover (a picture of the continental's hood ornament). What's more The Beach Boys already recorded the definitive concept album about cars in 1964 with 'Little Deuce Coupe' and, seriously, there isn't enough reason for there to be two albums about car songs in the world; sometimes listening to that album you wish there wasn't room for one. To use some of the lingo from this album, Neil seemed to be permanently stuck in sixth gear and if his career was an old jalopy it would be pulled up at the side of the road with smoke pouring out from under the bonnet. I don't seem to be the only one either: there's a very telling moment on the title track when Neil speaks directly to the listener: 'I'm a big rock star though my sales have tanked, I've still got you though - so thanks!'
However, sometimes going down some old avenues can pay dividends and Neil, I got this all very wrong and I am very sorry - goodness knows after 36 albums I should have learnt to stop second-guessing you by now! 'Fork In The Road' is no masterpiece and even compared to 'Prairie' feels like the wind has been taken out of its sails a little bit - but it is at least Neil creating and pioneering again rather than just playing it safe or releasing stuff on a time schedule. All ten songs are recognisably Neil and yet all ten are different - like listening to an album like 'Freedom' rather than recent run of albums (which all tended to sound the same on every track). What's more there's more life running through this album than there'd been from Neil for a while: in short if this is what converting to battery power does to you than I'm all for it. By rights this is the sort of grungy, simple album that should be running on 'Crazy Horse Power' but no matter: Neil's usual rhythm section of Rick Rosas and Chad Cromwell sound far better here than they had on his albums of late and presence of old companions Anthony Crawford and Ben Keith makes this sound more of a 'Neil Young Record' than either 'War' or 'Chrome Dreams'. For central to all of this is Neil's faithful 'old black' guitar spitting sparks and sounding not unlike an old carburettor herself. Best of all, this is certainly Neil's most playful album in a long time, with the spirit of the Shocking Pinks - particularly in the way that nearly every track seems to be have been deliberately named after some road-worthy theme - Neil's albums had been getting far too heavy of late (with songs about death, war and whatever the heck was actually going on in 'Greendale'). 'Fork In The Road' isn't the heavy plodding journey spent in a traffic jam, of the same chugging three chord I was expecting but a Sunday drive to destinations unknown. If this album really represents a 'fork in the road' then let's go!
So, what do we have then? A series of 'Little Deuce Coupe's? Motor engine noises, stories about drag races and driving rhythms? Err, no - not unless that's all you want to take from this album. The car theme is really a misnomer; this is Neil singing about his life while using his car as a metaphor for either his life journey or his creative voyage into the unknown. It's kind of like an extension of one of Neil's famous quotes, that writing 'Heart Of Gold' put him in the 'middle of the road' - so he took off the 'ditch'. 'When Worlds Collide' starts off as an update of 'Route 66', Neil now riding down the famous highway in a converted car that signals the future, feeling 'really cool'. By the end, however, the song is a treatise on how the world may yet be full of pioneers and one-offs: a nation full of individuals in cars that reflect their individuality, not a load of cars taken piece meal from a conveyor belt. 'Fuel Line' starts off as a song about converting to electricity from petrol but then goes on to talk about the need for change; Neil surely talking about himself as he declares 'she's not the car she used to be - into the future's her destiny!' 'Get Behind The Wheel' is about either a girl or the muse itself and the need to 'exercise' them to keep the parts moving. 'Off The Road' is about losing the will that drives you on but somehow managing to keep on going anyway: though stuck in traffic, in the middle of the night, having driven 'everywhere' you know that somehow something will get you home and find the right path home. 'Hit The Road' is the closest to what I expected, a song where everyone seems to be trapped in little boxes powered by the same fuel that's hurting the planet, but it's brightened up considerably by the last verse picturing Neil or someone like him as a 'crazy fool trying to find the people's fuel'. Johnny Magic, the 'metal messiah', meanwhile, is a hymn to more than just the mechanic on a car: it's a hymn to all tinkering home professors who were told they couldn't possibly do anything to change the future - and did it anyway (the setting of Wichita might be important: a state founded by an illiterate half Indian pioneer as a trading post is now one of the key manufacturing areas anywhere around the world, mainly dealing in aeroplane parts).
All of these songs appear to be about the car - but really they're about the driver, not the vehicle. The result is typically Neil: the one time he tells us that he's delivered a 'concept album' is the time he delivers his most personal album in years. Now, most artists would be proud of words like these but like 'Trans' the lyrics are actually the part of the album that hits you later: many are mumbled, most are placed low in the mix and a lot of them are buried behind a big squeal of guitar. However Neil seems to take pains to 'hide' his most important lyrics (just think back to 'Trans', an almost painfully honest account of miscommunication sung by a bunch of vocoder-based robots) and for me it speaks volumes that the lyric sheet for this album features his familiar red scrawl, complete with various crossings out (the evidence is there if you really want to look, but Neil is willing to bet most people won't pick up on it - either that or this album really is just a suite of songs about an electric hybrid car and I've fallen into a trap put there especially for reviewers like me. Somebody please come and rescue me out of this tank filled with Spice Girls records!) Add in the fact that Neil has scrawled the name 'Joe the Rock Star' under his lyrics rather than his own (a pseudonym going back to the days when he used to appear on Graham Nash records a 'Joe Yankee' - perhaps Neil's forgotten he's actually Canadian?) and we seem to have here a bona fide case of Neil 'hiding' his 'real' self behind a character again - just like the old days!
For me, though, the most telling moment is the title track, Neil's most directly autobiographical song since 'Don't Be Denied', speaking to the listener directly in short, clipped verses that cover everything in his life in 2009: putting on weight to the ongoing Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the credit crunch, the poor quality of audio digital technology and the idea that, we've all been promised a 'bailout' and future happiness; Neil's not buying such a utopian future though: he reckons the bailout is going to the people who already have too much out of life anyway. The key question in the song then is which way will the world turn after 2009: will we learn from our mistakes, turn capitalism into a system that doesn't hurt as many people (or the planet) and endless wars? It's as if our era - the technological digital era, a spin-off from the analogue era of a few decades ago - is at a crossroads between the potential to be really great (making the most of our technology but in a way that helps, not hinders) or settling for second best and waking up one day to find our 'fuel' gone. There are many references to music across this track, sprinkled into the car references: that 'on the radio those were the old days - bring them back!' Together with Neil's comments three years before this that he was 'waiting' for a young singer-songwriter or band to speak out against the Iraq-Afghanistan war and felt rather angry that the 'old timers' had to do it for them speaks volumes. The modern day has become too settled, too set in their ways, too convinced that they can't change the status quo (if the 60s generation couldn't manage it then why bother?) But Neil doesn't want to be a lone crazy voice in the wilderness talking about saving the planet; the 'Sun Green' of 'Greendale' speaking her mind in a town that doesn't understand or care about what she's saying. More than any of Neil's other albums perhaps 'Fork In The Road' is a call to arms, a reminder that we do have a choice and that one day what we see as being on the fringes of society can become the norm.
The handful of less-car related songs continue the theme and, in some cases, argue passionately against it. 'Just Singing A Song (Won't Change The World)' is what Neil always used to tell CSN (who all to some extent believed in the power of music to change everything) but recently his stance has changed ('Walk Like A Giant' from 2012's 'Psychedelic Pill' is almost an apology for not believing in that dream hard enough; 'it's not enough to dream about how close we came'). The song should be subtitled 'but it's worth trying anyway' - Neil encouraging his listeners to be themselves, to 'be what you try to say' and to change the small patch of ground beneath the 'giant wheels' of civilisation that keep moving on oblivious to the harm they cause. 'Light A Candle' is a much more hopeful song, imagining that the future does turn out right and that it all started right here, right now (well, 2009) 'in the hallway of ages, on the road to history'. By going back to lighting candles instead of burning fossil fuels, Neil argues, we'll actually be taking a step forward - and lighting up more than just the room in front of us.
So, overall, is this is a colossal return to form? Well, no. A few of the tracks here a tad embarrassing. I remember getting a friend to staying up late to watch the Glastonbury highlights in 2009 (and hopefully a CSNY reunion that never happened, the two sections of the band sadly playing on different days and passing like ships in the night) on the recommendation that Neil would play something wonderful. Luckily he did, turning in a blistering 20 minute version of 'Rockin' In The Free World' with six (count 'em!) false endings. while getting the whole crowd to wave their arms in the air at a rate of 200 knots. And that was before the encore: an early performance by Neil's showstopper that year: an angry feedback laden cover of The Beatles' 'A Day In The Life' (an arrangement long overdue appearing on record). Unfortunately my friend missed all of that because Neil started with an unbearable torturous 12 minute version of 'Words (Between The Lines Of Age)' - the one song nobody likes from 'Harvest' and then launched into this album's 'Get Behind The Wheel'. In formula one terms, that's like storming through to lap the field after taking half an hour to get off the bleeding line. Of all Neil's inane, not really bothering, nothing to say songs 'Get Behind The Wheel' deserves at least a congratulatory telegram: the riff is lame, the lyrics are atrocious and the song just doesn't rock (although admittedly it sounds a teensy bit better on record). 'Fuel Line' is a box full of neutrals, a song with some good ideas that simply doesn't sing: as a song she's up on her wheels with a fused motor, unable even to navigate a single corner. 'Cough Up The Bucks', while fun (once) and certainly different, isn't worthy of being a B-side: an angry stuttering riff and Neil at his hoarsest speaking (not singing) the title over and over 70 times (yes I counted - it was the most interesting thing to do while the track was playing to be honest and saved me having to listen to it given that the CD player's skip button was way over the other side of the room) is not a fork in the road; it's a cul-de-sac. 'Johnny Magic' sounds like a fun guy to meet but the song is so repetitive you fear that in real life he's the kind of person who collars you at parties and talks about his spanner collection (or is it only me who experiences that?)
The other songs, though, do show promise. Admittedly we ought to be getting more than promise from an artist on what we're counting as his (gulp!) thirty-third album (with all the usual caveats about some live albums and film soundtracks counting but not others), but it's been a difficult period for Neil: as he sings on the title track he doesn't quite have the following he once had and is a little bit cast adrift creatively, with his albums becoming more and more ignored. 'Fork In The Road' isn't quite a u-turn back to where he was circa 'Sleeps With Angels' or 'Mirrorball' (the last time he was firing on all cylinders) but, like 'Prairie Wind' and the later 'Psychedelic Pill', it's a step in the right direction - a record with a lot of thought behind it and a few really great songs ('Just Singing A Song' 'Off The Road' 'Light A Candle' and the title track) that reveal there's a few more miles in the old dog yet.
Before we end our introduction for this review, a postscript: it was reported in 2010 that Neil's converted Lincoln Convertible had gone wrong and caused a fire, causing several thousand dollars' worth of damage to the barn it was housed in and nearby property before being put out (thankfully no one was near it at the time and no one got hurt). This coupled with the fact that I still haven't seen a proper electric car anywhere near my house yet (caveat: I really don't go out that much - a fact you've probably guessed given the detail in these reviews! - so there might be millions on all the roads for all I know though if there are then everyone I know has been keeping quiet about it) suggests that 'Fork In The Road' is a 'failure'. An album that was on the face of it designed to convert every Neil Young fan into card-carrying electric vehicle owners doesn't seem to have made much difference ('just singing a song - or writing about energy efficient cars - won't change the world). While not by much, 'Fork In The Road' was a worse seller than either of the Neil Young albums from the same period (#19 in the US and #22 in the UK compared to #11 and #14 respectively for 'Chrome Dreams II' and #15 and #14 for 'Living With War') and the critics slaughtered it (another reason I gave it a miss was the 2 star review I saw it given by a newspaper at the time - even 'Chrome Dreams' had got four from somewhere, I'm not quite sure how!)
However, as Neil put it after his car burnt down the barn: the mistakes were due to 'human failure' not the car (someone hadn't put the settings back right or something). The idea is a good one, even if some of the execution lets it down - the same thing we've been nagging Neil about ('Prairie Wind' aside) since 'Mirrorball'. Sometime in the future I fully expect to see converted electric hybrid cars become commonplace - and sometime in the future, when this period of Neil's career has been better understood, talked about and seen in context, I fully expect 'Fork In The Road' to be somewhere up there too: a record that's been misunderstood and parked in the garage for far too long. Livelier than 'Chrome Dreams', more varied than 'Le Noise' and more compact than 'Psychedelic Pill' it's a journey that's well worth undertaking and full of some inviting scenery before you allowing you to feel you've ended up just that little bit further on the road than when you started.
First up on our 'Fork In The Road' sat nav is 'When Worlds Collide', a travelogue with the difference that most of the travelling seems to be taking place in Neil's head. Young's narrator is 'in the old jail cell' but also in 'the promised land' - the irony being that the only way he can see the beauty and feel the spirit and freedom of a democratic America is by being stuck in a mass-produced box squirting out fumes that are destroying that same landscape! The song leads onto a discussion of opposites, of how 'truth is fiction, truth is lies' and how 'wrong is right' depending on whether something makes you money or not (would petrol-guzzlers really be so keen to hand out their 'death' fuel if they knew firsthand the damage they were causing?) More thoughtful than many Neil Young songs have been of late, the song starts off with Neil's stuttering guitar work doing a fair facsimile of a petrol-run car (or even planet Earth) struggling to soak up the last few precious fumes before running out for good but flowering into quite a lovely chorus melody. There's an interesting sub-plot, though, that has Neil in the same 'dark' place he's been for quite a few of his recent albums (starting with 'Are You Passionate?' back in 2011 but running through to 'Chrome Dreams'), cursing the fact that his life is falling apart thanks to 'one bad hand'. What is it? Like the rest of these albums from the same decade - we don't know, but it sounds like a life-changer. All in all not a bad opener - certainly by comparison with most other Neil Young records from this period.
'Fuel Line' is less successful and of all the songs on the album it's the closest to what I expected when I heard that Neil was writing an album about his car: it's a lecturing ecological protest song stuck onto a primitive chugging 12 bar blues. With a chorus of 'filler her up!' Neil tells us that using 'the power of electricity' instead of fossil fuels is 'smart - for a car' and how she's 'the future', 'cleaning the mess' of what the other cars burn. Papa Neil is clearly proud of his new toy but what he lacks in this song is any sense of passing on why he's so proud to his audience (surely burning fossil fuels to create electricity is only a temporary solution, giving the Earth a few extra decades at least, not a whole new lease of life?) All that said, there's a neat twist at the end of the song about the fact that people are so reluctant to embrace change - something Neil's been doing his whole career - sticking with the 'old ways' where they made their money, wasting it by 'advertising how clean and green they are'. Neil turns in a good performance too, turning 'old black' into the grungiest angriest motor sound he can and performing one of those typically 'soaring' vocals over the top that makes up for in power and emotion what it lacks in 'traditional' ideas of beauty. What irks, though, is the first of many presences by the backing singers (old hand Anthony Crawford and wife Pegi) which threaten to return us to the 'doo-wop days of the 'Shocking Pinks'; saving the planet seems to big a subject to be treated so frivolously.
As if answering what some of his critics are already thinking, Neil pulls the car mat out from under our feet with 'Just Singing A Song'. Neil is frustrated that all his rock star prestige and glory won't turn people on to electric cars en masse and wonders whether his long career has really been worth it if people still don't listen to him. 'You can sing about a change you're making on your own...but the big wheel turns on' he sighs in the second verse, reduced to singing his songs and hoping they're having the effect he wants (while being half afraid they won't - memorably sending them out to a 'distant star' every time they're played on the radio; we hope you're having fun laughing at the fact planet Earth still uses petrol out there on the planet Zigorous Three!) However Neil cleverly turns this piece of music into a 'greatest hits' compilation: there's the typical minor key tension, the 'Cortez The Killer' chord structures, the 'Like A Hurricane' guitar break (one of the very best, certainly of the second half of Neil's career) and the 'Springfield' era harmonies. The end result is a song that knows it won't have an impact but takes pride of trying to do it anyway: very Neil. The only shame is that Neil feels the need to somehow relate this experience back to his car: telling us about the 'new energy' he feels flowing around him, which is something of a shame; this debate about career and progression is somehow bigger than even one man's crusade to save the world from diesel fumes. Still, an album highlight.
'Johnny Magic' is the little man with a head for machines who makes a big difference with his ideas. Given Neil's love for mechanics (the part he 'plays' in his own film 'Human Highway' in 1983) it's odd that they haven't found their way into a song before now. I have a sneaking suspicion that 'Johnny Magic' is at least partly based on Neil himself: 'meeting destiny in the form of a heavy metal continental', a line that reminds us of both the car and Neil's 'day job' as a guitarist. The Wichita setting suggests something else though: the Kansas state seems to have been picked precisely because it is the place where pioneering single settlers founded it with tiny shacks and which ended up becoming the key aeroplane manufacturing state in America; so perhaps Neil is really singing about the 'everyman' here who never quite knows how destiny will view him. Neil never seems to bother releasing singles from his album anymore but he clearly considers this as the 'commercial' song on the album: it was this track that he invited fans to use during a 'music video' competition: some of the entries aren't bad actually; old 'Shakey' ought to do a bit of hiring for his film company! The overall result, though, is a song that doesn't really fit: a little too retro, a little too basic and predictable in a way that much of this album isn't; the highlight however is a glorious Chuck Berry style retro guitar solo in the middle.
'Cough Up The Bucks' performs the same function here as 'Piece Of Crap' on 'Sleeps With Angels' and 'Motorcycle Mama' on 'Comes A Time': it's the fly in the ointment, the sour grape in the bunch, the Spice Girls record in the top ten, call it what you will - in short it's a deliberately ugly song put in here to give us all a jolt of reality. To be honest it's not much of a song: just the title repeated over and over like a mantra the businessmen keep sticking to in response to people trying to save the planet, counterpunched with sudden single lines of beauty and harmony. Neil's had it in for bankers ever since the credit crunch (quite rightly - who else apart from soldiers get bonuses for actively messing up the lives of others?) and that's clearly his take in this song with the pained chorus 'where did all the money go? Where did all the cash flow?' For Neil his 'girl' (his car?) and his 'dream' are the only things that matter - money is just a neat by-product of getting those two things; the single-line jagged edges of the capitalist system don't even talk the same language. The result is a song that's a clever idea and features some more great guitar work but is arguably a little too simplistic for its own good; Neil's responses about trying to do something bigger than money need to be more developed and even prettier to create the contrast he's clearly striving for. Still, it's a lot better than 'Motorcycle Mama'!
'Get Behind The Wheel' is the third weak song in a row: if you don't know this album and I tell you that it's Neil Young singing a clichéd song about a car then you're probably picturing something pretty close to this song (only better, hopefully, if you have any imagination). Throughout there's the double entendre that these sorts of songs tend to use their cars as metaphors for women and there's a few winks along the way ('She always wants to please you, no matter what shape you're in!...She likes to take care, she's always looking good!') The song is built on a slowly descending riff that sounds like it came straight out of a 1950s B-side and a lot of the other clichés are here: (Crawford and Pegi intoning 'you better get behind the wheel - in the morning and rive' over and over, like the worst rock and roll records that simply get stuck in their groove and won't move (hurrah for the 1960s inventing variety!) There isn't really a lot more to say: 'Get Behind The Wheel' is a very simple straightforward song that doesn't tell you an awful lot about either car or creator.
'Off The Road', however, is much better. A song about being creatively drained with the cleverest use on the album of the car metaphor, this great ballad finds Neil stuck at the traffic lights, a long way from home, but recognising that he's now been down every possible path he could possibly go down. For anyone whose sat through the Geffen 'genre' records of the 1980s he has a point and there's been a feeling across the last few LPs that the songs aren't coming as easily as they once used to and yet Neil still feels reluctant to stop writing them and slow down. Here Neil knows 'you can never take your eyes off the road' - that's how accidents happen, how careers finish, how when you lose the muse it's gone for good and you're just going down the same old paths without learning anything new. For me it's the closest Neil's got to the spirit of 'Ambulance Blues' from 1974's 'On The Beach' of a crash happening in slow motion that Neil feels powerless to stop (this song is only missing the glorious tagline that 'an ambulance can only go so fast'). Neil has never sounded older, more weary or more frustrated as the song plods through at a funerally slow pace. Luckily this melody is one of his prettiest so the song never becomes as boring as that makes it sound (it's not far removed from his old classic 'Helpless', which is fitting because that's exactly what this driver feels he is here). There's also a gorgeous swirl of harmonies around the repeated title phrase that makes it sound like a spiritual path (is this Neil telling himself that his albums have got too 'middle of the road' once more and needs both the danger and the darkness to find his true path 'in the ditch'?) A wonderful thought provoking song played with real sensitivity by the backing band makes 'Off The Road' another of the album's highlights.
'Hit The Road' is another curiously angular and unmelodic rocker that spends a bit too long talking about that damned car again. Neil really wants to drive around town but it's not too long before he's stuck in another traffic jam 'bumper to bumper in a giant cloud of fumes'. The only thing that gets him through such an awful experience is the thought that he's not contributing to the same problem he's experiencing: instead he's 'in heaven' 'rolling on big old wheels'. The song then ends with him as the outsider in more ways than just the traffic lanes, ready and able to deliver a solution to this common commuter problem. The problem, like many of the lesser songs on this album, is that the track does too good a solution of reminding us of the problem (chugging one-note phrases and a dragging tempo) that it loses sight of offering us the solution. Of all the tracks on this album 'Hit The Road' is the one most badly in need of a 'contrast' - a bright shining middle eight solution where Neil outdrives them all and dreams of a future where he'll be one of many. Instead the best thing you can say about this song is how good Neil is at putting the feel of a tedious traffic jam into music.
'Light A Candle' is another lovely simple ballad, which really stands out on this record courtesy of not being treated with the 'power' of 'old black' and the quiet, understated feel. Neil's tired of hearing about problems - he wants solutions and knows that the next step is always difficult to make (going back to the journey out of the caves) but that if we don't do it it may be the last thing our species ever does. The candle is the key metaphor on this album - that humble self-sufficient light was the first thing that enabled man to travel and do something other than sleep when darkness fell; however small it is, however difficult it is to still see by it the light it gives out is still a cause for hope and it lead to something great in the past by allowing people to make the next step; in the same way that one person pushing for electric car power might not make much difference but it might be the starting point for something better in the future taken up by millions. What we have here is kind of the answer to 'Just Singing A Song's question about whether being a lone voice in the darkness is enough; this song reckons it is and is probably right. Who knows what the future might bring? One day 'Fork In The Road' might be held up as the earliest musical conservation project that actually offered an answer instead of moaning about everything. Neil gets a little carried away, though, telling us that 'the light of time is on us' and that our offspring will judge us by our actions now, that 'what we do now will always be with us'. There's another nicely sparing use of instruments on this song (Ben Keiths' part sliding into view around the minute mark and the Harmonies coming in later, sounding lovelier than usual here). However this song can't quite match the philosophical debate of 'Just Singing A Song' and doesn't quite have the beauty and power of 'Off The Road'.
Album closer and title track 'Fork In The Road' may well be the best song on the album, a kind of summary of the record, the car and the state of the world in 2009. Neil speaks to us rather than sings with another jerky motor-style riff going on underneath him, telling us about the world around him. The song's best line comes at the start: 'Got a pot belly, ain't too big, gets in my way when I'm driving my rig'. A talented daughter of his neighbour's has her horizons lowered so much by the credit crunch that the best she can hope for is 'a job' - any job, whatever the time she's taken at night school. Careers are so last century - this one is a struggle for survival. Neil turns his attention to the wars next, reprising his views on 'Living With War' by having the world 'salute the troops' who are 'still there in a fucking war! Whose idea was that?' (A whole album on the subject later Neil still doesn't know). Neil then adds that he's had hope that things would get better for some time now, but that it hasn't come true - adding that some people struggling in a downturned economy without jobs or futures have hope too but, ever practical adds 'you can't eat hope'. Neil then becomes more personal, telling us that he's 'still a big rock star' but 'my sales have tanked'. - people just can't afford music anymore when they can't afford to eat. Even the bloggers he used to rely on to spread the word to those who couldn't pay to hear it have seen their 'batteries go dead' (in spiritual and political as well as physical terms you sense - how long can you keep writing about making a subject better without losing some of the fire?) Neil then finds himself turning on the radio for comfort, exploding when he finds there's nothing on he likes and longs to hear the 60s and 70s generation, the CSNYs, fighting injustice: 'Those were the old days - bring 'em back!' He then ends the song by imagining himself as a typical American consumer, fooled by adverts into getting a flatscreen TV he didn't actually need when times were good and being unable to keep up payments now times are hard - 'got it repo'd now, they picked it up and left a hole in the wall'. Throughout this state of the union address 2009 come two stinging choruses: there's a promise of a 'bailout coming' but it's not for the ordinary struggling Americans who need it and are innocent of the problems caused: 'it's for all the creeps hiding what they do'. The other is the theme of the whole record: there's a fork in the road ahead, one leads to happiness, takes risks and finds a solution to our problems relying on money and fuel that should both be anachronisms in this civilised day and age; the other has the problems falling heavier on top of all of us as the wrong people take advantage of the solution and make it worse (yes, David Cameron, that means you!) The result is a thrilling finale that manages to be both sarcastic and hopeful, as funny as Neil has ever been and touching on every subject close to his heart. Again there isn't much of a tune, but this is so much more than 'just singing a song' - it's a list of demands and, like the best of 'Living With War', shows a layer of intelligence under the emotion and humour. The catchiest, yet the most unsettling song on the record, 'Fork In The Road' is Neil at his best - had the rest of the record matched the same levels as this track it might have been the return of the century.
Even so 'Fork In The Road' contains four strong additions to the Neil Young archives, which ('Prairie Wind' apart) is in truth better odds than any other period record in the years between 'Mirrorball' (1995) and 'Psychedelic Pill' (2012). I'm still not sure if Neil's convinced me about his visions for the future with electric cars (personally I'd rather see cars and planes banned and more money put into public transport to make them run off electric batteries - and so ends your party political broadcast on behalf of the Green Party) but Neil's always been ahead of the curve and if he thinks it can be done I believe him. The best moments on 'Fork In The Road' musically though come when Neil is having doubts - when he fears that he really is a lone voice in the wilderness shouting to himself. The real legacy of 'Fork In The Road' is still a musical one, despite the car settings, which showed that Neil was gradually taking the right roads again. Alas we know now that both follow-ups 'Le Noise' and 'Americana' are both dead-ends but I still have hope that there's another great Neil Young era still to come ('Psychedelic Pill' was a step in the right direction too). So, Neil's musical career revived by a suite of songs about a car? Strange things happen when worlds collide. Overall rating - 6/10