Monday, 27 February 2017
Neil Young "Peace Trail" (2016)
Neil Young "Peace Trail" (2016)
Peace Trail/Can't Stop Workin'/Indian Givers/Show Me/Texas Rangers/Terrorist Suicide Hang-gliders/John Oaks/My Pledge/Glass Accident/My New Robot
'On the sacred land there's a battle brewing'
I wanted to use 'Ugh!' as the opening comment in this review of Neil Young's take on American Indians and their persecution at the hands of the capitalist elite and after reading all the routinely negatively reviews and reports of the slow sales following a string of top ten albums (only top 60 in the UK, only top 80 in the US!) figured I would probably have to. Actually though I really like and admire 'Peace Trail', which carries on Neil's legacy somewhere between the fire and politics of 'Monsanto' without being as hidebound as its subject matter and the strong emotion of 'Storytone' without the treacly strings. And there are none of the squawking chickens or twenty minute jams that made sitting through semi-live album 'Earth' such a slog - instead this is a bona fide rounded full on record. Admittedly it's a record that could have used a little longer stewing (most of these songs are first or second takes, meaning new friend Paul Bushnell on bass and world famous session drummer Jim Keltner barely get to learn what the title is before the record button is pressed down) and some of these songs end up hanging on for dear life to the same repetitive chord structure for full songs which seems to be Neil's de facto way of making a record for the past decade. This clearly isn't a 'classic' up there with the beauty, daring, invention or importance of particular albums past. But even more than the slight return to form across the past few 'normal' records this feels like an actual 'album' - these songs all go somewhere slightly different (the Achilles heel of 'Monsanto'), none of them are awful (compared to 'Storytone' and 'Greendale') and some actual thought has gone into the lyrics (for the first time since 'Prairie Wind'?) If we can't have a Neil Young album made the way they used - after months of writing and months of recording - then this is the next best thing for now. Though described as 'acoustic' in most reviews, this is no gentle 'Harvest Moon' but a sound more like 'Le Noise' caught between the oompah of the electric records and the introversion of a trio with only a little electric guitar, again halfway between the extremes we've been getting lately. Talking of halfway perhaps the biggest change is that Neil isn't choosing to look purely inwards or outwards this time, but both.
Ostensibly this is an album about American Indians that cuts the same path as 'Monsanto' - the Government are doing 'wrong' to a minority culture that has no voice so Neil decides to give them one anyway, tired of never 'reading anything about it o the news'. Dakota Access, the Monsanto of the oil industry, are at the time of writing building a huge oil pipe across North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa at a cost to the US taxpayer of $3.78 billion even though most forward thinking countries already get their fuel from renewable sources nowadays. Neil's more horrified by the environmental issues though: no one seems to have checked what having a whacking great oil pipe running across the country will do to the people and wildlife in the states it passes through or what the waste will do to the seas when it gets there. Several Sioux and Meskwaki Indian tribes have come forward in peaceful protest at the pipeline site being built - where law enforcers promptly beat them up, even though many admitted 'following orders' and not actually understanding what the pipe was being for and what it would do anyway. It's another case of business for the rich minority suddenly being more important than the livelihood and health of the silent majority and that's the sort of thing that always makes Neil mad. The fact that he's long identified with Indians himself (after years of dressing that way in the Buffalo Springfield and writing songs about Pocahontas et al and naming his band 'Crazy Horse') and Neil's string of environmental songs (most of them recently collected on curio live album 'Earth') makes this cause sound even more personal than Monsanto somehow. Neil's rage is a quieter rage but icier for it and there's less shouting and mass protest on this record, more brooding. He himself spent his 71st birthday (November 15th 2016) as part of the protest himself, rallying the troops with his new batch of songs. Neil is often at his best when he's at his bravest and there's no doubting his courage again here - he could easily have lived off writing 'Harvest Sun' and adding to his multi-millionaire trilogy and seen out this difficult post-divorce period in silence; instead of feathering his nest he's ruffling feathers from the people that matters and that alone gets this album a star rating.
The theme of Indians and their protest crops up several times across this album. 'Peace Trail' itself imagines a utopian 'rainbow tepee' where ordinary people get to live out their lives in peace. 'Indian Givers' is a playful folk-blues about the history of persecution of the Americans across '500 years' and yet remarks over how they're still prepared to fight on behalf of all of us. 'Show Me' discusses the 'sacred land' being exploited again by white European immigrants who should know better. 'Texas Rangers' sarcastically comments on how the police rush in to 'save' us from people trying to let the truth be known. The memorably titled album highlight 'Terrorist Suicide Hang-gliders' is less specific about the cause but feels the threat of 'darkness' hovering in the sky about to take us all down (the first musical response to Trump's election? Then again Neil sounds loosely supportive in the interviews in the run up to this album, claiming Trump is more willing to u-turn than most Republicans and might yet have the character to grow into his role; CSN, needless to say, don't agree). I still can't find any mention of a 'real' John Oaks so he may just be a figment of Neil's imagination - he sounds like one of the Indian protestors though, now saddled with a typical white immigrant European name and not used to speaking out, but coming together with his 'tribe' when they need him - even at a cost of his own life. 'My Pledge' veers a little too far towards spoken-word Greendale territory and fake earnestness but this too is Neil offering his own take on the protest, offering on record a witness statement he wouldn't be allowed to read out in a 'rigged' courtroom. It's safe to say that Neil doesn't back down from tying his colours to the mast and all of them are on the side of the 'real' people standing up for their rights over big business. It's also safe to say that Neil might have been inspired by Johnny Cash's greatest LP, his Indian protest album (450 years late!) 'Bitter Tears' in which he cackled over general Custer too fat to get on his horse and praises the honest working Indians he sees around him given a hard name by jumped up upstarts who haven't been around on the land as long.
However this is also a lot more than just a 'protest' record in the way that 'Monsanto' was - the danger of which is that being so specific to one place and time, it's never going to have the same resonance with future fans when 'Monsanto' is a slang word for 'crazy shit the human race does to itself with genetically modified crops' and 'Starbucks' is slang for a 'company that got so big for its boots and paid so little tax people stopped buying it' (we live in hope!) This record is also Neil coming to terms with his 'new' life post-Pegi and with Daryll Hannah. Without his family, his ranch or many of his friends around him Neil is reaching out to the music to sustain him more than he ever did. 'It's bad for the body but good for the soul' he relishes on 'Can't Stop Workin' as he sings about his desperate need to keep busy and occupied, writing albums like this because he so wants to do some good with his life. Most of these songs, after starting as diatribes about the Dakota pipeline protests, wind up somewhere more personal. 'Peace Trail' moves on from the rainbow tepee to vow 'ain't taken my last hit!' while sighing 'I know things are different now', wandering back on a personal 'journey thru the past' in search of new beginnings. 'Show Me' makes clear how heartfelt this protest is, identifying with people who've never dared speak out in their lives before by saying 'I know how you feel' before adding that a similar rage 'made me this way'. 'Fell how it hurts you!' Neil rages on 'Texas Rangers', desperate to get the law to feel what he's feeling - we didn't get this same kind of personal appeal on 'Monsanto' which was more of an intellectual 'debate'. 'I got some news I bring to you with sorrow' Neil sighs on 'Terrorist Suicide Hang-Gliders', a song about a world that's changing too fast to keep pace with and taking sarcastic pot-shots at 'immigrants' bringing 'bad vibes' when what's really wrong is a much bigger feeling of calamity in the air. 'My Pledge' takes a break from sticking it to the judge on behalf of the Indians to ponder why 'I feel lost in my generation - left me behind' before mourning the people he knows would have been standing up for him from the rock and roll world but aren't here (interesting a 'plane crash' is mentioned rather than the expected Danny Whitten overdose message - does Neil mean his old pals/rivals Lynyrd Skynyrd?)
The album also ends on two songs that have nothing to do with the main album message - one of which is a song about Neil and one about the world we all live in and where it's going. 'Glass Accident' is one of the most revealing songs in a long time (along with Storytone's 'Plastic Flowers') in which Neil drops a glass in accident and reflects on how much like his current life that is: something fragile breaking through something that was nobody's fault, the shattered pieces all with the potential to do 'damage' if stepped on the 'wrong' way. He's fully aware how many ripples his recent divorce has caused and in many ways regrets it - and yet there's a 'hope confusing, like a bright light' that gives him the power to move on to his new life anyway - maybe even risking picking up another glass one day! As fort 'My new Robot', this one sounds as if it started life as the joker in the pack - the 'Piece Of Crap' or 'Motorcycle Mama' of the record. Neil's sitting under a tree counting his blessings and 'singing a song to you' - but instead of love arriving, as we expect, it's a package from an Amazon robot and it's robotic voice is completely at odds with the heart-warming love we expect. All Neil gets are 'things' - and things aren't as important as people, especially when he forgets his pun number and complex password! This is what the human race has signed up to now - short-term fixes for short attention spans (which might be why this track - and record - cuts off suddenly without warning) whole the fact that the melody of this song is a direct 'steal' from 'Rust Never Sleeps' track 'Thrasher' (about reaping what you sow) adds to the sense of mankind heading down a bad curve these days.
So far so good. The main problem with this album though is that, once again, it comes across more as a series of demos than a fully thought out record (it's been, what, eleven years now since 'Prairie Wind' the last Young album not made up largely on the spot?) There are no songs here that wouldn't have benefitted from a few extra verses, middle eights or simply a stronger melody line. Even more so, you have to feel for poor Paul and Jim who are clearly busking in the dark at times. They cope remarkably well given what Neil throws at them (it's easier to hide the fact you don't know a song if you're a fully plugged in electric band like The Promise Of The Real), but however gifted you are if you don't know a song you can't play it at your best. I wish, yet again, that this had been a CSNY album too as what it lacks most is harmonies: politics is the quartet's speciality after all and there's nothing like hearing the dark days of mankind's humanity with that little smidgeon of perfection harmony and hope to make things seems not quite so bad. Though the quartet have never seemed further from getting back together, after Crosby and Nash's fallout over the latter's autobiography and divorce, any hurt between Neil and the others seem to have been put to rest as, a decade on from (yet again) swearing he'd never work with them again, Neil has spoken recently about making his peace with the others and wanting to play with them again. This album, like 'Monsanto' would have been a great starting point - a 'the subject is bigger than us' idea. However it is perhaps a good thing that this album has moved away from the electric crunch of Promise Of The Real. Good as they were as a younger Crazy Horse, these songs call for more subtlety and range and the acoustic vibe suits them well. Neil, too, is singing better than he has across an entire album than he has for sometime, no longer sleep-singing his way through the songs but changing his tone for each one. Overall, though, the performances are still this album's weakest link, not up to the songs themselves.
Recently Neil has been sounding frustrated and helpless, protesting more because he feels he has to than with any certainty that he's going to achieve anything, but what comes over most from this record is how with-it and content Neil sounds. On 'Storytone' and 'A Letter Home' when his divorce was happening he'd never sounded more lost and though he did sound angry on 'Monsanto' it was more one of those 'I'm trying not to think about it' angers that probably switched back again the minute the tapes stopped rolling. This is, by contrast, Neil taking back control of his life. He still feels guilty, he still feels passionately about getting 'lost' in a cause bigger than his own problems and he's not yet quite found his feet after all the upheaval caught here at the end of a period that neatly mirrors the 'Geffen' years of family trauma. For the first time, though, Neil actually sounds as if he'll find a way through the fog this time, with this album perhaps the 'Life' of his records - slowly getting used to the new lie of the land and working out how to do things. Which is good news if it means another 'Freedom' is on the way and Neil might actually start taking time to make his records again! Even if that never happens, though, there's actually a lot more to enjoy on 'Peace Trail' than the last handful of albums. Like the last half a dozen albums though this is a 'nearly' album rather than a great one, with only a few really great songs (the chilling 'Can't Stop Workin', the playful 'Indian Givers' and the harrowing 'Terrorist Suicide Hang-Gliders') although there are no really poor songs here this time either. The theme then: Neil's getting it together and so, slowly, is the world - but a few sleepless nights might yet be in order on our way to the 'peace trail' and the rainbow tepee in the sky. Will we make it? Join us on Neil's 39th album of 'new' material (!) to find out...
'Peace Trail' itself is one of those urgent aggressive rockers Neil uses so often to open his albums ('The Loner' 'Cinnamon Girl' 'Rockin' In The Free World') with a fuzzy staccato churning acoustic guitar riff. Then, not for the last time on this album, we get a surprise: a gentle, evocative organ part that mellows the mood and chills the song down. The mood seems to be that Neil has a whole load of turbulent emotions running through his head but he's trying to stay calm. Even when 'Old Black' arrives, making one of its few appearances across this album, it's a calmer use than normal, more about the spaces between the notes that Neil doesn't play. This is all rather fitting for a clever song about searching for a utopia you're now old enough and wise enough to k now you're probably never going to find but which you can never stop looking for. Neil discards all criticism of his recent relationship with Darryl Hannah, claiming that there's no one up in heaven looking down on him and his actions. He knows that he could win everybody over in an instant if he wanted to by writing another 'Harvest' but the fields of opportunity aren't ripe for ploughing yet - he still has too much to think and wonder about first and would rather we didn't listen if it's all the same to you. Neil veers between complacent and aggressive, unsure whether he should turn on his nay-sayers ('I ain't taken my last hit yet!') or leave them well alone. 'The world is full of changes' he sighs, commenting that as he's always done with his life he's going to 'keep planting seeds until something new is growing'. There's a neat twist on 'I Believe In You' where Neil comments that 'If I believe in someone I have to believe in myself' and that he's content to wait to find out what that belief is, that 'finding treasure takes time'. It's as if Neil is admitting here that many of his recent albums have been under-par and yet he knows that something great is about to happen - he can feel it 'growing' even though he doesn't know what it will look like when his muse finally gets here. As if to emphasise the hurried, rushed air of the track this is the most unfinished of all the recordings here, which is a shame - there's a fine melody here and a nice shuffle rhythm but instead of coasting blithely towards the 'peace trail' this song is frustrated and confused, the players hanging on rather than really nailing the groove. The fact that more time seems to have been spent in post-production than was ever spent in recording (the electronic trickery on Neil's voice, vocodered at times in a far less personalised way than on 'Trans') is another bad sign. However the song itself is a good one, Neil trying to actively talk to his faithful followers about his direction recently with a few friendly references to old songs and Indian artefacts thrown in.
Better and even more revealing yet is 'Can't Stop Workin', one of the highlights of the album. The backing track is a little like a stripped bare 'Ten Men Workin' or 'Someday' without the horns and extras, with Jim Keltner's dancing drums sounding like a chain gang. That's suitable for a song about feeling the compulsion to write, to record, to make more music even when Neil's fanbase can't keep up. Half life motto, half apology, Neil explains that music is his way of explaining the world around him and he writes more for 'control' when his life is running out of it. Though recognising his doctors say working so hard is bad for the body, Neil has to do it for his mind - he has no choice. His work defines who he is and he needs to feel he's achieving something with his life. A terrific wailing bluesy harmonica part interrupts the flow and makes it clear that this is no mere novelty song - Neil has so much hurt rage and confusion inside him he has to let it out somehow, with music his safety valve to prevent him blowing over. 'I might take some time off - for forgiveness' he ponders to himself near the end but you kind of know he never actually will; he gets his forgiveness from working harder. In between this there's a fascinating second verse where Neil attacks himself for staying still too long, the way he once did CSN on 'Long May You Run' and 'The Old Homestead'. 'Where have I been for all these years? I thought I knew you better!' he ticks himself off like a truculent child. Perhaps remembering the inherent danger of 'On The Beach' Neil urges himself to stop staying so close to the middle of the road where it's 'safe' and embrace the tides again, 'writing a letter in the sand' even if he knows it will get washed away and ignored. The fact that this song is punctuated by another, even more aggressive burst of distorted harmonica makes it clear that this is no risk-free exercise but career suicide and yet Neil has to do this anyway. He's hurting, he craves 'forgiveness' and he can't turn off the music and thoughts running through his head, but he also knows if he doesn't force himself to rest soon he might not have much of a career to return to. It's an astonishing track, bare and poignant, bluesy and ballsy, hopeless and determined. It is, at long last, the real deal Neil!
'Indian Givers' is a playful, restless song caught halfway between electric and acoustic. Neil is mining the spooky acoustic vibe of 'Tonight's The Night' et al but his rhyming scheme is more childish and mischievous as he tries to make a mockery out of the politicians and law-protectors we're meant to respect. Damning the people who try to take what little the Indians have left and fighting them for sticking up for their rights Neil repeats 'I wish somebody would share the news' over and over before deciding that if no one else will than that must be what he's here for. Like 'Monsanto' Neil rips into big business taking away natural soil and turning it bad and may well be comparing our present age to the Indians being pushed out of their lands by big business, only now it's happening to a new generation of 'native' Americans powerless to stop them. Neil clearly sees a parallel with past persecutions of Indians too, recounting times of 'when graves were scattered and blood was boiled'. What gets Neil most is the lack of respect: the law are told to fight protestors to that's what they do without thinking of the fact that what they're trying to do is stick up for everybody and save everyone from across three American states from ecological damage and harm. By the end of the song Neil has finally discovered the direction he was looking for in the last song; he's a protest singer at heart giving a voice to people who don't have one after looking round first to see if anyone else is writing what he wants to say: instead he concludes that 'fighting against the evil way is all we have at the end of the day'. Thoughtful but light on its feet and jazzier than any song since the Blue Note days, this is a rather splendid little song that's serious enough to be firmly on the side of the Indians but genuinely funny in its own right ('it makes you sick and gives you shivers!') The star here is Jim Keltner's cymbal heavy crashes which add a great deal of atmosphere to the song and somehow navigates its way through Neil's timeless tempos and lack of structure as verses come in short, medium and lengthy sections before breaking off for that bluesy chorus all over again. Note that there are two mixes of this song doing the rounds - Neil made the second when an American Indian fan objected to the use of the word 'squaw' in the last verse (discussion still rages between historians over whether Indians used 'squaw' to mean 'wife' or simply a female's genitals, with the suggestion that the rest of her being unimportant - chances are it originally meant 'woman' and ended up being used offensively after many centuries of use. Here ends your English language history lesson!)
'Show Me' is one of the album's lesser moments simply because not much happens across these four short slow verses, although even this track isn't quite as lacklustre as some other slow songs Neil's been giving us recently. A reflective acoustic song slotted in over a slinky blues groove, this song has Neil reflecting on all the sights he saw first hand the day he turned up to the Dakota pipeline protests himself. However instead of being a journalism type song about what physically happened in front of him, instead Neil sees a bigger significance than the bumbling law ever did: these are Indians, fighting for their own livelihoods against an unstoppable force over 'sacred land'. Neil sees a direct link between the past and the present and in the best line of the song says that all the promises and peace between the Indians and Europeans is long gone, 'gathering dust on a shelf' in some legal guy's office. He's seen firsthand the disrespect shown to the Indians and half a century after 'pretending' to have Indian blood in Buffalo Springfield interviews makes good on his promise that he identifies with them, that 'I know how you feel because that's what made me feel this way', identifying with their sense of injustice. Unfortunately there isn't a melody to match the fine words and what we get is a song that needs to big and bold and brilliant and just sounds as if Neil got out of bed one day and put this down on tape without really thinking about it. This song deserved better and of all the recordings on the album is perhaps the one that most got away.
'Texas Rangers' is a repeat of 'Indian Givers' with the same comic-tragic playfulness, another serous song about the law enforcers coming to take the Indians away that descends into silly rhymes ('The token has broken like a toy...filmed on a phone') and a playful doo-de-doo riff that's more likely to be heard in a nursery rhyme than a slab of political protest. It's a sound that doesn't quite come off being too silly to be taken seriously and not quite as funny as before. Neil's vocal is also depressingly 'straight' given how bitter and sarcastic many of these lines are, with the Texas Rangers 'riding in to the rescue of all that's well and good' even though what they were actually there to do was beat up some Indians carrying placards and exercising their right to a peaceful protest. 'Lost in the sandbox' is Neil's summary of the bad relations between the two sides - this was a chance for two communities to come together and instead they've been split even further apart in the name of big business greed. 'Try to change it' he urges the people there and us at home, 'because it's hurting you and holding back your dreams!' However committed the words though, however heartfelt the track clearly was when Neil wrote it, there's something about this song that's just a little bit too unconvincing. It's hard to be angry when you're laughing and while all serious albums need their moment of levity, this song wasn't the moment. The album's other weakest moment.
I love 'Terrorist Suicide Hang-Gliders', though, which as great a summary of what mankind is experiencing at the moment as any song I've heard. We're all waiting for something bad to happen because it feels like it could happen at any time - as Neil puts it, 'I never knew till yesterday my life could end tomorrow'. Though we're not 'at war' it feels as if there's a drone of destruction up there with our name on it and its targets aren't soldiers or politicians but any of us, at any time, from any country. Neil speaks out about how easy it is to get carried away with whose the enemy: everywhere his character goes he feels paranoia, declaring 'it's all the fault of those people with funny names...how do I know if they're bad or good?' The real tragedy of our times is that we've lost our humanity: people in warzones used to be victims who needed our help, but now they're over here and the terrorists are picking on 'us' we've all been turned into potential victims. Neil has no answer for this - indeed the theme of the song seems to be that there isn't one (it's hard to fight an enemy 'you can't see, hidden in the darkness, behind the reasons that you're free'). But picking on those around us, who are the victims along with us, isn't the answer and that a knee-jerk re-action like this is too simple (the lines are ambiguous enough to be read genuinely and some reviewers have wondered exactly that, but Neil's clearly using sarcasm here). The melody that accompanies this song is one long slow shrug of despondency - there's nothing anybody can do except to keep slowly moving on down the road hoping the next terrorist attack doesn't get you. At the same time, though, Neil's distorted harmonica points yet again at how heavy and bruising living a life like this is, unsettled to the point of not being sure of anything anymore, while Jim Keltner again excels himself by hitting his drums in an eccentric pattern so that we never quite know what's coming next. This is an impressive complex song that's one of Neil's best in a long time, although even this one would have benefitted from some variation or a middle eight somewhere.
The song would have been better, too, had Neil not immediately followed it with 'John Oaks', another slow song that's written to more or less the same melody and slow-side-of-walking-pace tempo. 'John Oaks' is the tale of a simple worker with Indian ancestry whose never stood up against any injustice before in his life ever. He's a 'mellow man', a tree planter, who spends most of his time drinking wine and smoking weed - politics aren't for him. And yet when he sees so much damage being done to the planet like 'Sun Green' before hi he suddenly turns into a protestor, angry enough to usher his friends into attending rallies and speaking long speeches against the tyrannies of big business. Inevitably this all brings him to the attention of the law who single him out for 'special treatment', shooting him dead when he tried to speak up for them in turn shooting a 'black man'. In the court the policemen are let off when they say they thought they saw him flash a pistol - of course anyone who knows the tree planter knows that he wouldn't know how to use a gun if he had one. John's fellow protestors keep his body safe instead, guarding his body at the cemetery with rakes in another protest. Neil was clearly trying to turn the events he was seeing into a modern-day folk-song of the sort Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs or Bob Dylan would have done decades before - perhaps picking on his complaint in 'Indian Givers' that 'I wish somebody would share the news' and ending up writing the song himself when no one else seems to. But there's an art to making a fictionalised romantic account of a 'real' event and Neil's always been much better at 'realism'. Even though this song has more words than any other on the album we never feel like we really know John Oaks and his name and what happens to him are so derivative (of course he plants trees with a name like that!) that it's hard to get quite as moved as on other songs on the album. Neil's performance is also rather muted too, not so much a heartfelt protest as a disinterested mumble.
'My Pledge' is weird too. The song seems to follow on, taking place at a court-case for one of the protestors charged with disturbing the peace. Typically few of the protestors were given a fair chance at a hearing or a chance to put their point across, so Neil does it on record instead, speak-singing his way through another curiously lifeless song. 'If it pleases the court I have a lot to say' begins Neil, adding that this 'hasn't always been true'. he's 'awake' now though and moved, speaking up for an oppressed minority,. Only as the song unravels it becomes clear that this isn't the minority we're expecting. Somewhere around the third verse, when Neil mentions the Mayflower, it dawns on you: he's put the European settlers on trial, damning their attempts to destroy the Indian tribes while admitting that most ordinary people didn't know or care it was happening. Next Neil's turned on the current generation, full of people walking past with the same blank stares of confusion. The fire that once filled 'his' generation -represented here by Jimi Hendrix' 'Purple Haze' - has now become 'background music' from a past point in time; nobody is protesting, nobody is fighting, everyone is just letting bad people do bad things. Neil is spending his time stepping over what seem like 'dead bodies' in the streets, unaware if the homeless are asleep or deceased. he wonders if there's a difference when everyone he sees are asleep and dead inside. Feeling hallucinogenic now, Neil starts seeing past heroes and heroines walking the land and wondering what they would make of how America turned out: not good is the answer; Florence Nightingale's lamp is extinguished and her three 'brothers' don't get to do much (these are 'Abraham' Lincoln, 'Martin' Luther King Jnr' and 'John' Kennedy', as named in Marvin Gaye's 1968 song 'Abraham Martin and John'). Elsewhere three rock stars who could have taken a stand die in a 'plane crash' (Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in 1959? Or Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977?) But Neil's narrator still wants to 'serve', so with nothing else to do in a surprise twist in the last verse he signs up to a navy recruiting booth as the only thing he can think to do to protect his country. This, of course, is only going to end up causing the same vicious circle again - more soldiers/personnel to fight in more wars that stir up more trouble that lead to more hopelessness and nationalism...The song ends mid-note as if this cycle is still ongoing. While Neil's lyrics have a real bite to them and some excellent images (once again he's standing 'on the beach' and watching it 'turn into cement', as he's sidelined making protest albums no one else will touch), the melody again leaves something to be desired, sounding as if Neil is simply singing the first thing that came into his head after writing his thoughts down as a poem. This is also the sloppiest performance on the album, emphasising the rambling free-flow form of the song rather than the daring, the excitement or the energy. The fact that Neil is 'shadowed' by a vocoder most of the way through, drowning out much of what he's trying to say, is another odd production decision that doesn't quite work out. The result is an odd song - brave, but lacking.
Thankfully 'Glass Accident' is much stronger and a lot more personal. Dropping a glass wouldn't immediately make me question everything about the fragility of life (especially given how clumsy I am, I'd be doing it all the time), but it brings out the best in Neil as he watches gravity at work, notes how the glass 'fell in love with the floor' and appreciates all the mayhem that ensues just from a momentary mistake. Neil figures that in our fragile human existence we're all mistakes and splintered glass waiting to happen, sharp ragged edges hiding a smooth surface that won't last forever. While Neil struggles to get the metaphor to last for the full song, this track is impressive in it's quiet profoundness, as if we're listening in as Neil's cogs whir to process this new thought. 'Just imagine what could go wrong!' he sighs to himself, as if he's never thought about things breaking before - he thought he was built to last. It's a neat variation on his 'rust never sleeps' theme - if the rust doesn't get you through old age you break instead. For all that, though, this is not a sad song and in the third verse Neil is confused why he suddenly feels hope 'looking like a bright light blinding you with its power'. Maybe he feels that he doesn't have to wait for the accident to come anymore - its happened, he no longer has to worry about stopping it and he can walk on (and buy a different set of glasses?!) By the end of the song he's vowed to be more careful but can't put things right so instead he writes a 'warning message', leaves it propped up by the door and walks on. Once again the melody could have been stronger and this is another of those slow mid-paced songs that sounds remarkably like the rest of the record, but the idea is a strong one and Neil's vocal is delicious. Would that he broke more dishes earlier in his career for songs like these!
The album ends on a weird note. 'My New Robot' starts off as if it's going to be the big confessional moment of the album: 'My baby's gone' Neil whines while pouring out a cup of coffee, sitting under a tree and singing sad songs about 'you' - a neat mirror of the song 'You and Me' from 'Harvest Moon' in 1992. But then the song gets weird: Neil is excited by the thought of a 'replacement' being sent to him via an Amazon drone. 'My life has been so lucky!' Neil declares, but the next line is that 'my package has arrived' rather than that his love has returned as expected. Neil boasts about his new purchase online, swipes his card, enters his pin, re-enters his pin, creates a password using all sorts of unlikely maiden names and numbering systems and ampersands. 'My owner is not available' sings Neil in a robotic voice that makes him sound like R2D2 and is clearly a close cousin of the robots from 'Trans' ('We R In Control' sounds all the more menacing the closer we get to the reality!) and the whole thing is aborted. 'Your media is chosen based on your bad habits' the robot Neil cackles, as if taunting us with a vicious cycle we can never escape. 'Powering off!' Neil suddenly yells and the album ends, without warning, mid-note. It's an odd, deliberately unlikeable song about how mass consumerism can never be a substitute for human love. Neil is clearly feeling isolated and alone, but rather than broach the subject directly as he did on 'Storytone' he ducks out of things rather here, laughing at the world instead of crying for himself. That's a shame because at first it sounded as if we were going to get a rather deeper, better song. But there is a good piece here too commenting on our consumerist obsessed society and it's warped priorities which could itself have been a strong song had the robot shenanigans been saved as the colour rather than the whole point of the song. It's no 'Trans', in other words, lacking the power, but Neil still makes for an awfully good robot.
Overall, then, 'Peace Trail' feels a little bit disjointed: one minute we're fighting for the planet with the Indians and the next we're mopping up spilt glasses and ordering random robots to save our souls. The fact that the melodies are a little similar, especially on the second side, ought to offer cohesion but only really offers yet more confusion. However, overall I like 'Peace Trail' for all its awkward, confusing ragged glory. Neil isn't quite there yet where he used to be, but he's hungry and impatient to get there which is a good sign. His music manages to mix the best of his recent albums, revealing a writer with his finger on the pulse of modern-day changes in society and putting his career on the line to write about them without ignoring what's going on in his personal life and 'hiding' behind Indians and Amazon robots. Actually I'd have liked a bit more of the Indians here - there's a worthy concept album about heritage and history and modern day exploitation if Neil had wanted to make one; even so half a concept is in many ways better than the full on force of 'Monsanto Years' (which started great and ended up a little tedious). There's a toughness about this record we haven't heard for a while and the snazzy acoustic vibe throughout doesn't mean that this is a soft or peaceful CD, whatever the title on the front cover. 'It's just an exercise' Neil shrugs on the penultimate line of this album, but while that sums up rather too many of Neil's recent albums for comfort, this one feels more substantial than that. If only Neil and his rather good backing band had spent more time honing and crafting, instead of making do, this could have been a terrific return to form. Instead it's another good stepping stone on the way out from the darkness of the 'Greendale' and 'Chrome Dream' years on the way to something special that feels as if it's getting closer with every record, Neil prepared to drop glasses no longer. Happy trails Neil, may you find forgiveness soon.