Monday 16 October 2017

Neil Young "Living With War" (2006)

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Neil Young “Living With War” (2006)

After The Garden/Living With War/The Restless Consumer/Shock and Awe/Families//Flags Of Freedom/Let’s Impeach The President/Lookin’ For A Leader/Roger and Out/America The Beautiful

“I don’t know why man has to keep starting wars. Maybe it’s the same reason I keep repeating myself…”(Neil Young at Long Beach 1989)

When the illegal, outrageous, oil-grabbing war started with America and Britain and their allies against the inhabitants of Iraq who were fighting using weapons we’d sold them thirty-odd years ago (and who had nothing to do with 9/11, the main reason given for ‘smoking them out’), I waited  in vain for a new band to speak up against it the way that they had back in CSNY’s youth. Nothing happened. This was a different era, when music meant shaking your booty and looking good on camera and never, ever having an opinion (heaven forefend that your audience might actually hear you saying something they didn’t agree with or controversial!) Music had gone back to the bad old times, when David Crosby could get kicked out of The Byrds for mentioning JFK’s assassination (admittedly doing so in front of the biggest crowd the band had ever played to and with a few references to politicians taking drugs thrown in) and when Graham Nash was told not to mess with the successful Hollie formula. But some things need to be said more than you need record sales and – after sitting back and waiting the way I was – Neil just couldn’t wait anymore. After writing about the start of the whole mess with the gulf war soundtrack ‘Weld’ (the concert tour when the news played behind Crazy Horse on big screens night after night) it made sense that Neil should offer us an update, this time with all-new material. ‘Living With War’ was written and recorded with the by-now traditional Neil Young customary  haste, the songs written in a hurricane of CNN news reports and paper articles and then recorded in even more of a rush, crunched out as simply as possible to get the thing in the shops to counteract the next pro-Bush news bulletins. After years of skirting with being a pro-Reagan Republican, this was Neil back in the liberal headspace  where he belonged and the first time since ‘Ohio’ in 1970 that the guitarist had been moved to make politics so central to his work.

Here’s a quick history lesson: Iraq were a threat once, in 1987, fighting Kurdish rebels in the North with mustard gas they bought from, err, America and Britain. By 1991 though it was all over. The news told us all in 2003 that cruel dictator Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction hiding in Iraq and must be stopped, this idea somehow neatly tucked into the back of a rampaging spirit of vengeance after 9/11 and a desire to get the Middle East where it hurt. However Iraq had nothing whatsoever to do with Al Qaeda or the Taliban and the problems that were crippling the country could all be laid at America’s door. We’ve already seen in this book how moved Neil was by The Gulf War in 1991. What was often portrayed on the news as a ‘right and just’ war was secretly for oil and involved the bombing not of Iraq’s military but their power supplies; in all eighteen of their twenty power plants were blown up and then probably only because two missiles missed. Far from removing a dictator, the chaos helped to keep Hussein in power, worsened by endless sanctions (including, most devastatingly, chemicals that treated water supplies) which punished a people who had never asked for war with America (it would be like refusing to send supplies to America because not that many of them voted for Trump). Nine full years of bombing continued between 1991 and 2000, almost all of it not shown on the news after America learnt its lessons about public reaction. In the meantime the press kept exaggerating the dangers, of how Iraq were ready to be another deadly terrorist attack, but it was all a lie: weapons inspector David Kelly couldn’t find any weapons of mass destruction as promised and was found mysteriously dead from an alleged ‘suicide’ in woods near his home before he could make his report. Drugs were found in his system, apparently before he had slashed his wrists in a manner that made them look awfully as if someone had done that for him. The report of mass weapons was later revealed to have been part of a university dissertation proposing without proof the idea that one day Iraq might build up such weapons despite strong sanctions against chemical components – part of which made it, unchecked, into the official dossier. That major immediate danger we were told so much about? Iraq had an army, but it wasn’t a very big one, she didn’t have a navy, she didn’t have chemical weapon plants and she didn’t even have an airforce. They were about as threatening to America as Cornwall. Less so, given that the locals could have made quite an impact with their Cornish pasties. It was all a lie. Neil was not happy. But still some people preferred to trust the Government that had once hidden Watergate from sight over Neil Young who had once brought the massacre of students at Kent State University to the national consciousness.    

‘Living With War’ is an album that’s been dividing fans ever since. On the one hand it’s as specific as yesterday’s newsprint and more tied to its era than any other Neil Young album and became obsolete just two years later when Barack Obama (‘though they say that he’s too young’) entered the White House. In the days of Trump it seems almost quaint that we had a president who kept changing his mind and had the IQ of a chimpanzee when we have a president who is intrinsically evil and has the IQ (and looks) of an orang-utang, a ‘happier’ time when we were only blowing up soldiers and ‘foreigners’ rather than having terrorists blow everyone up at random. To Neil’s Republican fans it was the last nail in the coffin as they were forced to choose between their favourite musicians the their president (though clearly there is no choice: you should always trust musicians over politicians, always. Unless it’s The Spice Girls. Especially when they’re in congress). Even without the politics ‘Living With War’ is a scrappy album, raw and undignified and full of the same thrash riffs over and over and yet also very top heavy, dominated by heavy brass and a choir of mass voices that never quite works, making the set sound pompous and strange rather than unified, which was probably the intent. In terms of execution this is Neil at his all-time worst, with nine tracks that all sound the same and an a capella all-choir finale that’s the single sickliest moment in his back catalogue.

And yet…even though this album frequently trips over it’s flat feet without the grace of the usual Neil Young album, it’s heart is so in the right place. For much of the 21st century Neil had been coasting, denying his frequently complex love life by writing about something, anything to distract fans from what was on his mind. Neil was in danger of becoming a hollow shell of himself creatively and suddenly here he sounds human again, even if that emotion is outright anger. Neil means this angry turbulent album in a way he hasn’t meant any of his other recent records (the sickly worried ‘Prairie Wind’ aside) and snarls his way through this record like a man possessed and thirty years younger. This isn’t merely his yearly record anymore, it’s a literal matter of life and death and Neil’s commitment is what makes this record work, scruffy edges and all. Neil’s anger and his desire to become the Dylan of his generation also inspires a whole new style for Neil that works very well: poetic journalism. None of these songs are his best work all the time, but considering the rush they were made in Neil is truly inspired at times across this record in a way he hadn’t been in over a decade. ‘The Restless Consumer’ was a far better analysis of the situation than any political commentators I heard on the news, backdating the trigger point of the war not to 9/11 but to earlier causes and effects as a political vacuum coupled with poverty and cheap weapons sold by the Western world adds up to hideous extremes. ‘Families’ works on so many levels and is such a shock after so many one-note Neil songs: the families who have soldiers who will never come home, the contrast between the cosy American homelife and those of the lives the soldiers shoot and the irony of protecting what family life stands for by shooting members of somebody else’s family. ‘Lookin’ For A Leader’ soothsays the rise of both Obama and Hillary Clinton long before most people had really taken notice of either (‘Maybe it’s a woman or a black man after all?’) ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ comes out and says things braver than anyone else was saying at the time, using Bush’s own contradictory words to bait him as Neil cries for blood. And best of all is ‘Shock and Awe’ which tries to make sense of the whole sorry mess, a bitter ironic take on the American military slogan and what it really means for people around the globe, not so much shock and awe as fear and dread, warning that America is on the wrong side of history and that it will ‘be a cruel judge of over-confidence’. This is an unwinnable war that should never have been fought and is costing too many lives on both sides. ‘America is beautiful;’ Neil sighs ‘But she as an ugly side’, before offering us ten songs about why he feels such a fierce patriot – and why feeling a patriot is what made him speak out, not keep quiet.

There’s one major loss with this album, though, which will be put right on the subsequent tour. This isn’t a natural Neil Young album and really doesn’t suit the crunch of Neil’s usual rhythm section Rick Rosas and Chad Cromwell who are too heavy-handed for an album of this subtlety and depth. Instead this record cries out to be a CSNY record, full of the quartet’s unity, bravery and angelic harmonies offering us a half-sight of the utopia this album reaches for. Neil felt too nervous to tour this album himself and so asked his colleagues to help him out, even though they were rather estranged at the time, seven years on from the failure of ‘Lookin’ Forward’. It speaks volumes that all three agreed without hesitation and put together a setlist that took away all the traditional CSN family favourites in favour of the band’s most fiery political material. ‘Living With War’ sounds pretty weak as an album, but it worked very well on that tour surrounded by similar songs from yesteryear like ‘Long Tie Gone’ ‘For What It’s Worth’ and ‘Military Madness’ that added to the fury in the room. Alas the resulting live album ‘Déjà vu’ is hopeless, diluting the politics and drama in favour of singalongs, but the full tours on bootleg are superb as harmonies and hope clashes with feedback and brutality. One day CSNY might put out a full live recording of the tour (many exist on bootleg) and their reputation will surely only be enhanced by it, as these songs of Neil’s cry out for harmonies to soften the blow and their aged, cracked voices make so much more sense than that tacky choir.

Or then again, would anybody want a souvenir of the tour? Neil fans have put up with a lot down the years: the arena-agony of ‘Time Fades Away’, the drunken wake that was ‘Tonight’s The Night’, the road-eyes setting up 100 foot tall microphones for ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ and the calls from ‘mom’ and the ‘cops’ that kept interrupting 1987’s ‘garage band tour’. Never, though, did a Neil//CSNY tour cause as much fuss as this one did. The ‘Déjà vu’ documentary recounting this album in brief and the CSNY tour in depth featured the audience booing, cat-calling, swearing and walking out en masse during the performance of ‘Let’s Impeach The President’. Far from preaching to the converted, Neil walked into the lions’ den and baited it with a stick, playing in Southern states that were pro-Bush and hitting the audience with song after song about his mistakes and errors. Neil lost many fans that day and seems to have lost many more judging by the album sales (this record did quite well, but the ones after it have all sold far worse). For a time in the 1980s Neil was the only rock and roll musician outspokenly Republican and won over so many fans who were nervous of hippie politics and that leads to this album’s biggest contradiction. ‘Flip!...Flop!’ runs the chorus to ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ as Bush first says he spends no time thinking about terrorists and then says he thinks about nothing else (a quote given to the press from his golf course and followed by the line ‘now watch this drive!’; truly you couldn’t make this up!) But Neil has flip-flopped too. Back on ‘Hawks and Doves’ in 1980, a concept album that split war and peace songs down the middle, Neil still came down on the side of the hawks, rolling up his sleeves and telling America to nuke Russia if they had to. 1981’s ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ is even more pro-Republican, with its tale of imported workers and exported cars leaving the country and its anger that America wasn’t being the big business tycoon of the world. Wayward youth? A midlife crisis? Or is Neil just as guilty of flip-flopping? An attempt to calm the waters by ending with a choir version of ‘America The Beautiful’ and reconciling the two sides falls flat: this is an album that stirs up trouble rather than brings peace.

That is also, though, what this album does so well. Politicians can’t come out and say stuff against their low IQ president – they’d be sacked outright. Political commentators in the papers and on TV tend to be ‘owned’ by the people who really really really want  the money that such an illegal war would bring and so can’t speak out either. The literary world was being slow to respond. The art world hadn’t even daubed their paintbrushes. Plays took ages to put together. The world needed liberal musicians to get out there and speak the ‘truth’, which is what this album does so well. What’s so clever is that Neil also flip-flops his approach to this album and yet all roads point to the same result: this war is wrong and it should be stopped. Sometimes he’s a character watching his children go off to a war they didn’t need to fight, all because of their misguided trust in a President who is lying to them. Sometimes he’s involved in the fight too, a ‘restless consumer’ who benefits from the war, but at a price higher than he wants to pay. Sometimes Neil is an orator for his times, commenting on the disparity between what we’re told and what’s really happening, offering up counter arguments. Sometimes Neil is looking for an alternative to come and save us (‘Lookin’ For A Leader’). Sometimes he’s hopeful (‘After The Garden’ looks forward to peace and starts the album on its only happy note), sometimes he’s despondent (‘Roger and Out’ almost-ends the album with a tale of the world blowing itself up and America losing its prestigious role in the world). And sometimes it’s personal: ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ is his single most damning song about anybody since ‘Ohio’ sent Nixon coming with his tail between his legs.

However Neil is at pains to point out that he’s not just attacking Bush personally. There are many references to ‘history’ on this album and the sense that in another future time zone Americans (and other people around the world) are going to look back on this period in shock. How did Bush get to turn murder into a phone opportunity? How did we go to war based on no other evidence than a ‘dodgy dossier’ full of lies and a manifesto copies from an undergraduate’s theoretical essay? How did a small backwater of the world get blamed for something they weren’t even involved in (we didn’t go after where the Taliban were last spotted because they were, uhh, our allies offering business deals, so we went after their impoverished neighbours instead. And though Neil oddly misses a chance to make the point and people tried to pretend it wasn’t, this war was clearly about oil and natural resources). And most of all, how did people let this happen? Neil spends much of the album outraged: outraged not just that Bush is a moron in office after his own evil ends but that so few people spoke out against it and backed him up all the way. As a one-time spokesman for the 1960s Neil is furious with his baby boomer generation as much as he is at the politicians here (born in June 1946, Bush Junior is eight months younger than Neil).

Throughout the record we get a mere ‘lone voice’ calling to us from across the darkness. While the choir and guitar, bass and drums make everything sound rigid and stuck, we get the sound of a lone bugle calling to us across the album. Sometimes it’s a bitter, sarcastic twist on what a bugler should be doing, calling the troops to war – only the troops are the masses who are letting all these bad things happen. Sometimes it’s a moment of beauty in a world of noise and mass destruction. Sometimes it’s a glimmer of hope in a world that’s doing its best to trample it under foot. Mostly, though, it’s Neil’s way of speaking out for the military rather than against them. There’s a moment, on the world tours, where Neil (and sometimes CS or N) would turn to the bugler and salute, seconds after damning the American military to death that’s more poignant than anything actually spoken on this album. He’s paying tribute by trying to save lives, not damn the service. Even though as a card-carrying hippie I disagree in the need to have a military at all (and think anyone dumb enough to  sign up to earn blood money by killing people deserve everything they get and any person who signs up to the armed forced out of choice is a murderer, pure and simple) I have to say this is a very clever touch and gets Neil out of all sorts of trouble with the media who, if this was a blog of any respect or following at all, would no doubt get persecuted for comments like that. Alas his idea of using the choir in a similar way – as a mass of unified voices – really doesn’t work that well. Every time Neil gets personal, in come the choir to dilute everything. Every time the album starts grooving and overcomes it’s power trio slash to start moving and dancing, the choir swamps it all. Every time Neil sounds real, pushed to his limits, the choir sound posh and indifferent. Like the bugle the choir are seemingly meant to play a different part on each and every song. But that doesn’t work: like most sounds built up from a group of people rather than one or two they are too stuck in their ways and sound the same whether they are meant to be sunny, horrified, detached, angry or mocking. Instead it just sounds like a group of people who aren’t quite sure what they’re singing or why, trying to keep up with the sheer speed of Neil’s band and overpowered by their rawness when they’re not being overpowering themselves. Some albums need choirs. A rushed, raw polemic anthem against the stupidity of mankind’s actions that reflects a lone voice fighting in the wilderness isn’t one of them. This is an album that sounds better in the remix, rush-released almost straight away as ‘Living With War – The Beginning’. This should have been the end product too, with its clever disc of ‘music videos’ which are actually footages of war new bulletin style with the lyrics going across the screen as the subtitles (very moving it is too by the time you reach the end, although watching news reports admittedly isn’t every fan’s idea of a ‘good time’).

Not all the techniques work that well then (‘America The Beautiful’ is wretched, intended as a last hopeful hymn that Neil isn’t even on and which the choir just sound deluded on after all that’s gone before it), but we fans had waited over thirty-five years to hear him attack and stomp on anyone the way he did on Nixon. He might not do it with quite as much class as he did on ‘Ohio’ or make as timeless a statement about the war as a history lesson we can learn from the way he did in 1970 (everything on this album is so specific in scope that it will probably confuse future historians who see Bush as part of a chain of dumb Republicans who shouldn’t have been allowed to graduate never mind serve time in office, rather than as the be-all and end-all of our problems). But Neil makes his point well for the most part (certainly in songs, if not always execution) and this is an impressively brave record that features more passion and heart in one place than all of his record since. Maybe Neil should speak out against a few more wars, including the fourteen that Trump is inevitably going to have started before the end of his time in office. Alas that’s also this album’s legacy: it didn’t end the war, we’re all still living with it and a few extras beside nowadays and instead of kick-starting a new generation of writers inspired to become political, Neil was so put off by the flack of making this album that he hasn’t made another even though Trump is a sitting target (I can see it now: ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ ‘The Loner With Orange Hair and Tiny Hands’ ‘After The Missile Rush’ ‘Heart Of Mould’ ‘Harvest Gloom’ ‘A Lotta Nukes’). However that’s the album’s legacy rather than the album itself and despite the rawness, despite the choir, despite the lack of any beauty and the hideous treacly ending ‘Living With War’ is very much one of Neil’s better ideas, full of a spirit and fire and passion that all his other albums would have benefited from. Sometimes too, when Neil’s poetry is in sync with his muse and his emotion (as on ‘Shock and Awe’ and ‘Families’ in particular) he goes back to writing fully developed thoughtful songs that touch a nerve. And when you are living with war in your hearts every day, a writer like Neil who can make you feel less alone and less isolated with your pain is the most important job you can have: far more important than a flip-flopping president, his hand-tied underlings and media or the soldiers who are pawns in a game much bigger than they ever realised when they were first signed up. Neil aims his weapons of mass destruction at all the right targets here and only a few of them miss.


You play a game, as a Neil Young fan, as to whether the title of the album just out has anything to do with the actual album. What is ‘Re-Ac-Tor’ re-acting to? Why is there a second Chrome Dreams when the first one only appeared on bootleg? Where the hell is ‘Greendale’?!? If you missed the publicity and with the bland paper-bag packaging of the album cover, you could just about fool yourself that ‘Living With War’ was a quirky album about anything. But in comes the opening lines of ‘After The Garden’ and you know where this album is going: ‘Won’t need no shadow man running the Government, won’t need to stinking war!’ I’ll put you down for a protest vote then Neil? Interestingly, while this track feels musically like the perfect opening track - fast, anguished, a little paranoid – it feels lyrically like a rousing album closer, full of hope for when the current mess of war is over and we can go back to peace again. Neil mourns for the soldiers sent to fight a rich man’s war and looks forward to a time when we ‘won’t need no strong man walkin’ through the night to live a weak man’s death’. The ‘where will people go after the garden is gone?’ chorus is sadder, imagining a time when there is no garden left, but this also sounds oddly happy in context: maybe we won’t need to keep dreaming of a garden because we’ll be living there? My guess is that Neil, a compulsive news watcher, saw the same bulletins I did about the once beautiful cities of Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan being trampled underfoot by soldiers, all that beautiful architecture and all those lovely gardens turned into no-man’s land of sand and dirt. Another verse points to the wider idea that this is just one war of many, as Neil dreams of a time when everyone is a peace-loving hippie and we won’t need ‘no Purple Haze, won’t need no sunshine’ because we’ll be living there all the time. The choir sounds rather good on this one – the only time they will on the album – singing with real gospel joy as Neil’s embittered guitar and the crushing drum ‘n’ bass feel still finds times for sudden moves to the major keys, a light in the darkness before things get too heavy. The result is a likeable singalong track that’s maybe a verse short of being amongst the true classics on this album.

Title track ‘Living With War’ matches perhaps the single best lyric on the album with the weakest melody, turning what should have been a poetic Dylanesque call-to-arms into something of a dirge. On this song the war is personal: Neil talks about his own experience as a peace-loving liberal trying to lead his everyday life when he knows that out there somewhere people are dying illegally for an unnecessary war. Though Neil is, like the rest of us, watching events unfold on the ‘flat screen’, he still feels personally involved, feeling every shot, every wound, every dead body as if it was one of his own. All Neil can do is take a ‘Holy vow’ never to support a war again and to ‘try to remember peace’ as something to cling on to so that this death and devastation no longer seems ‘normal’. In an alarming second verse Neil tells us that it doesn’t take a full-on disaster, like a tidal wave  or a set of mass graves, to ‘prove’ America’s point: they can win by diplomacy and bargaining, not war. A painful middle eight roars with the pompousness of a national anthem, but the lyrics make it clear that it’s nothing to be celebrated: yes the American flag flies, but only at the cost of lives on both sides and the chaos of ‘bombs bursting in mid-air’. Across this song the bugle works well, sounding as bleary-eyed as the troops it usually calls to battle and with a world-weariness that works really well. Alas the choir really doesn’t work as well, at least on the ‘main’ version of the album: this is a personal re-action to war and hearing posh people enunciate lines like ‘I join the multitudes’ it all gets a bit cheesy. Neil’s guitar sounds good though, with a crunch of feedback and a busy-ness that recalls one of his more powerful full-throttle rockers even though the setting is slow and languid, a requiem not a celebration.

‘The Restless Consumer’ sounded glorious on the CSNY ‘Freedom Of Speech’ tour, but loses a little of its punch on record. This is still one of Neil’s best songs in years though, twisting and turning from verses trying to understand the true underlying triggers of the war and the context of history and a much more personal extended chorus that goes on for hours as a sea of voices chant ‘no need!’ over and over. The opening rhyme of ‘The people have spoken…and they ain’t jokin’ loses this song several marks but the rest of this lyric is superb: Neil sees this war as inevitable from the ‘modern disease’ of how people live their lives. He speaks up, a lone voice fighting against the ‘TV ads telling me how sick I am’, sick to his stomach at the ‘boxes I can’t see on TV’ full of dead bodies coming home. Neil then juxtaposes the scared, lonely and impoverished around the world crying out for help and the West’s ‘restless consumer’ flying out there to bomb them or give them what they want for a price when they could just pay for food instead. Neil imagines himself as an impoverished family in one of these bomb-scarred lands: ‘How do you pay for war and leave us dying?’ Namechecking Bush’s famous quote Neil destroys what the American Government are telling us: ‘There’s no mission accomplished here, just deaths to thousands’. Neil is frustrated: he’s old enough to have lived through lots of lies and he proclaims ‘We don’t talk to them and we don’t learn from them…Hate don’t negotiate with good!’ The whole wordy song is then wrapped up with a punchy cry of ‘don’t need no more lies!’ which punctuates the end of every verse and rescues this very asymmetrical song from falling over. Meanwhile Neil’s ‘old black’ guitar chops and saws its way through the musical landscape like a demon possessed, Chad Cromwell’s drumming is deliciously inventive and heavy and Neil’s own lead vocal is a thing of beauty, by turns angelic and pure, concerned and frustrated then angry and demented. By the end Neil is screaming, so affected by the claustrophobia of lies and avarice around him and it’s an exhilarating moment, like the days of old.

‘Shock and Awe’ is even better, with one of Neil’s more straightforward crunch rock and roll riffs put together with a lyric that’s obviously dripping with sarcasm. Bush Jnr’s phrase for countries bowing before military might was ‘shock and awe’ but Neil uses that phrase in a whole new context: he is shocked and awed, but at America’s stupidity and greed, not their might and right. Neil is an impersonal omnipotent narrator here, looking in a detached way at how it came to this and deciding, even at this early stage, that ‘history was a cruel judge of over-competence’. Instead of people coming to liberate and help, Neil envisions the troops having a ‘giant photo op’ in front of the sun as thousands of dead bodies are left scattered on the ground, with no one there to mourn as entire families are wiped out, while America sends her dead back in boxes. ‘Both sides are losing now, Heaven takes them in’ snarls Neil as he foresees another decade and counting of stalemate, multiple generations ‘scarred for life’. He figures that America has ignored her last chance, screaming passionately that it didn’t have to be this way and that ‘we had a chance to change our minds’, switching violently back to the first-person to make his point all the more emotional. Alongside his emotional delivery rocks a mother of all guitar parts, choppy and angry and all bared-teeth, playing a wonderful double-act with another bleary bugle solo that would be comic if it weren’t all so tragic. ‘Wisdom was so hard to find’ Neil sighs and the song’s theme is clear: There had to be a better way than this. We have to learn from it.

‘Families’ is a third strong song in a row, this one a brief but catchy song that sees Neil playing the part of a soldier’s family wanting to keep their loved one’s safe. The trick, though, is that we don’t know which side we are ‘on’ – both sides in a war have loved ones who won’t see their soldiers come home. There is, as we’ve seen, a few things working at this song: the American ideal of family life juxtaposed with slaughter of another’s family, the feeling of disunity war brings even at home and the desperate aching need for Neil to keep his family safe. The first verse has Neil as an actual dead body, asking for his loved ones not to mourn but to ‘celebrate our lives’ and ‘try to bring our spirit home’. He even talks to himself, pleading with songwriters to ‘do us justice, because we’re just like you’, Neil keen to stress that soldiers aren’t some distance detached force but real people with real relationships and people who care about them. Neil is reaching out to the soldiers and to his own families, telling both how much they mean to him and acknowledging that just because the soldiers happen to be part of a ;different’ family to his own that doesn’t make their lives any less meaningful to him. We should all be one big happy family, not a dysfunctional one who keep lobbing things at one another. Neil longs to be enjoying family life, but suddenly he’s called to battle, a ‘chill wind blowin’ and a rifle in his hand and a light of the great unknown up ahead. What does he think about when he dies? Not his country. Not this war. Definitely not his president. He thinks of his family. The word ‘family’ punctuates this angry, defiant song like a balm, appearing tacked on to the end of every verse as the one thing driving the narrator and his soldier buddies onwards, their vow to protect their loved ones back home. The choir works better here than most songs, although the many times that the word ‘faaaaaamily’ is repeated across this song does make their entrances a little predictable. There’s a nice punchy guitar grove on this one, either pumped up full of adrenalin as the soldier goes out to kill or his excitement at getting a pass to go back home and see his ‘family’. A clever little song, which neatly deflects all the ‘but what about our soldiers?’ guff the Republicans always speak whenever a Democrat comes out in criticism of a war. Yeah, Neil cares for the soldiers too, that’s why he doesn’t want them to be shot – and why he cares for the soldiers of both sides.

‘Flags Of Freedom’ isn’t quite as good. Neil tries a little too hard to be poetic here and his idea of being a family of someone going off to war is a little clumsier than some other album tracks. The melody too is recycled wholesale from ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, although in many ways that’s quite apt given that Neil resurrected Dylan’s track for the ‘gulf war’ tour of 1991 that rather started this sorry mess (odd isn’t it how a Bush can start a war and a Bush try to end it, with the Republicans avoiding one in the middle!) – Dylan even gets a namecheck in verse three just to show Neil’s realised this but is going ahead anyway a la ‘Borrowed Tune’. This time every verse ends with the line ‘the flags of freedom flyin’. At first Neil means it truthfully: he’s a proud parent watching his son march off to war to keep the country safe, while on the second verse the ‘soldiers look so brave’ and the church bells chime in celebration. The soldier’s sister is watching the President speaking on the news as she says goodbye to her brother in verse four – but he’s already gone as her ears are filled with his ‘lies’. There’s a gorgeous middle eight that says everything about the stupidity of war and makes the idea of ‘flags of freedom’ look more suspect: ‘What colour are they now? Do you think that you believe in your flags more than they do somehow?’ Over on the other side of the world another family is sending their children off to war in the name of peace and freedom: so how can they both be right? The answer is both are wrong – these aren’t the flags of freedom but a trap, both sides sent off to fight an ‘age-old war’ that’s been fought over and over again so many times with no sides ever truly winning. Alas this song sports a less interesting melody than the other songs on the album and gets rather forgotten sandwiched between two of the more memorable songs here, for all it’s worth.

‘Neil, what’s your new single ‘Let’s Impeach The President’ about then?’ asks a clueless reporter to a bemused Neil in the ‘Déjà vu’ documentary. Neil seems to have written the album’s most controversial number in an attempt to reduce this album’s themes to the bare=-bones so even Republicans can understand it, without this album’s imagery, play-acting or poetry. Instead this is pure anger: the world has seen proof that Bush Jnr lied to get America into a phony war, attacks him for ‘abusing all the power that we gave him’ and has obviously read the same report about he and his family having a say in all sorts of dodgy committees with the line ‘shipping all our money out the door’. Neil further harangues Bush for hiring criminals, ‘bending facts to fit with each new story’, of phone-tapping computers and telephones of ordinary Americans who might disagree with him and putting the blame squarely on Bush for abandoning the poor during Hurricane Katrina that so devestated New Orleans (in the song’s most killer line: ‘If Al-Qaeda blew up the levees would New Orleans have been safer that way?) Neil then has a go at Bush for ‘hijacking his religion’ and pretending to be Christian when he acts more like a sinner than a saint and ‘leaving black people neglected’ as he ‘divides the country into colours’. A mocking last verse than decides to praise Bush for what he has achieved during his six years in office: ‘Thank God he’s cracking down on steroids…but of course our president is clean!’ (Bush had a very major drinking problem, more double standards at work here!) Behind Neil the choir intone ‘Thank God!’ like a demented gospel choir (which is hilarious, though sadly they sound less good chanting these lyrics behind Neil’s heartfelt lead). The result is clear: presidents have been impeached for far far worse (there’s no kindness or mercy to Bush here the way there was to Nixon on ‘Campaigner’), it’s time for Bush to go now that he’s more of a danger to America ns than terrorists could ever be. In an extended instrumental break we get Bush damning himself by his own words, contradicting himself in one speech after another while the mass choir yells ‘flip!...flop!’ as Bush goes all gung-ho and then says he doesn’t think that much about terrorists before ending with a half-apology as ‘most of our intelligence turned out to be wrong’. Neil ends the soliloquy with Bush’s heartfelt ‘no one can no doubt the word of America’, which is now clearly a joke after more u-turns than a car full of u-bends. All in all it’s safe to say that Bush was not on Neil’s Christmas card list that year. Neil got into one hell of a lot of trouble for this song, with fans walking out and columnists raging and politicians falling over themselves to dismiss this song. It was all worth it: the result is s clever, sassy, sarcastic song so singalong and catchy it’s guaranteed to stick in your head and simple enough even your war-supporting Republican friends can actually understand it. The result is a fabulous song, laugh-out-loud funny but never disrespectful to the people who gave up their lives for this ongoing farce. And yet, by Trump’s standards, Bush now seems to be a pussycat. These are worrying times.

They were in 2006 too, with two more years of Bush still to go and the prospect of another four years with a different Republican leader. Neil’s looking to the future to try and give himself something to look forward to ‘Looking For A Leader’ and hopes that the Democrats can fight back with a respected candidate who takes them to power and restores sanity again. Neil does a spot of fortune telling on this song, seeing what even the Democractic party hadn’t yet in the year when he was one of several candidates: ‘Maybe it’s Obama though they say that he’s too young’. This was, in fact, the first time as a British citizen I had even heard of Obama and I had to look him up and thought ‘yes he looks a credible candidate’ – maybe we should get Neil to pick our next president without all that democracy business? Then again that line rhymes with ‘maybe it’s Conan Powell to right what he’s done wrong’ so who knows?! All Neil knows is that America needs somebody to believe in again: he’s afraid of corruption after the 2000 voting scandal (when Bush was declared hours early despite a tight fight against Al Gore), knows that the country needs to come together before it falls apart (at every nail) and that ‘someone walks among us’ who can put things right (‘Maybe it’s a woman or a black man after all’). Neil’s conclusion: ‘America is beautiful – but she has an ugly side’. He desperately wants the beauty to come through, not this greed and cruelty. Alas, while Neil wins points for fortune-telling, he doesn’t win many for songwriting as this is another album track that doesn’t quite cut it. Hur-hur-hur this song is looking for a tune more like (Boom! Boom!) No actually the melody is fine, punchy and memorable, but it’s very repetitive and seemingly arranged to be as bland as possible, with no difference in the boom-boom-thwack playing throughout. I’m really not sure about the choir either, or the rhyme of ‘chance’ and confi-daaance’ which is one of Neil’s weakest. The worst thing, though, is how tied to time this song is: it became obsolete the minute Obama got into power in 2008 in a way that Neil’s other political songs, even on this album, never are.

‘Roger and Out’ is – ever so nearly – our ‘goodbye’ too with just one song after this on this album, one more set review and a sudden flux of new recordings coming out (many of them by Neil, of course) to go before we run out of reviews for good. Roger and out- goodbye. Fittingly Neil takes on a nostalgic walk through the past, recounting a close relationship with someone he doesn’t see anymore from the hippie days (First wife Susan? Stills?) Neil wonders what happens to them, remembers their days protesting Vietnam and that ‘we were just a couple of kids then’ – and yet the kids knew the answers, while the ‘adults’ all messed up big time. Or does it? In the next verse Neil and his significant other sign up to fight ‘laughing all the way’ on a reference back to an unfinished 1974 album as they travel on ‘the old Hippie Highway’. Now, though, Neil is mourning a friend who never came back while he did, wracked with survivor’s guilt and bidding goodbye to his friend. The message is clear: Neil never got over the loss of a friend from forty years ago and as much as he tries to sing ‘Roger and out, goodbye’ he doesn’t really mean it because the grief never really goes. He warns all the youngsters rushing off to sign up to war to be careful, that war victory is – As we’ve seen – temporary while grief is forever. Neil’s friend too ‘gave for your country’ but that’s not enough when his country did not give to his friend and kept starting wars again instead so that other people could die, lessons still unlearned. This is a moving, solemn song and it was another that was powerful in concert, draped with CSN harmonies (that made it sound even more like Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door…’) and a solemn serious feel. Here on record it’s a touch too slow and dull, while the choir doesn’t really fit and at three verses and no real chorus or middle eight it arguably needs another something else to keep it moving.

Talking of the choir that’s all we get for an over-heavy choir rendition of ‘America The Beautiful’. Now, I like to hear my new albums on ‘shuffle’ – it enables me to get a different ‘feel’ for a record and the true ‘heart’ not what the catchy first track wants me to hear (unless it’s a prog rock concept album of course!) You can imagine my shock when this song came on first and I thought ‘oh no – Neil’s turned full Republican and this is about being proud of the war’. You see, the choir sing so straight, as if they mean it: that America is graced by God ‘from sea to shining sea’ (odd how many countries claim that God is on our side: the ‘forgotten’ second verse of ‘God Save The Queen’ claims that God loves the English and hates the French; the forgotten second verse of La Marseilles claims that God loves the French and hates the English. The answer surely is that God hates both of us). Only after hearing the nine songs before it do you realise what Neil is trying to do here: he has made this album not because he is an anarchist but because he is a patriot who cares about the soldiers giving their lives for nothing. He also wants us to think about these words and how America’s actions is so different to the ‘American dream’ that we were led to believe in. Even so, the result is woefully misguided: Neil doesn’t appear at all on this a capella song as far as I can tell and the choir aren’t the best around, singing like a big fat lump rather than a hurricane of poignancy as they should. What should be a really moving and powerful ending is too Republican for most Democrats to stomach and too Republican to be giving your Republican friends the lessons about life and death and liberty the album has taught us. Of all of Neil’s album endings this is surely the worst since ‘Baby What Do You Want Me To Do?’ was recorded a mile away down a noisy pub and almost ruins the best Young album in years (give or take ‘Prairie Wind’).

Even so, for the most part ‘Living With War’ judges things right – impressively so given that this is maybe the most rushed of all Neil’s ‘first thought, best thought, only thought’ albums. No other musician was putting their careers on the line in quite the same way Neil did with this record but for the most part the songs are up to his bravery, especially the brace of moving songs in the middle. This is Neil back to being his most thoughtful and deep after over a decade of largely ‘phoning it in’, an album full of some of his best politics and his best poetic imagery, while unlike some other political records this album also feels connected and emotional at all times. Neil sounds reborn on these vocals too, really getting inside these songs, while his guitar is delightful and the military bugle a spot-on choice of irony and melancholy even if the backing is often a bit ploddy and the mass voices all but sink it. What a shame that we get a choir instead of CSNY harmonies and that we get a production that so insists on placing the same hard-riffing crunching at the heart of every song, with no real variety and colour. Then again, ‘Living With War’ was never meant to be a ‘pretty’ album. It was meant to be a newspaper, released as close to the events as possible, with a plain brown wrapper and an ugly font, functional and necessary rather than a luxury. On that score it succeeds, full of deep thought, deep emotion and songs that manage to balance being simple and straightforward with being thoughtful and complex. It didn’t stop the war, it didn’t get Bush impeached and it didn’t change the world for the better – not with Trump about to make us live with a whole new raft of wars. But ‘Living With War’ did make more than a few fans think, it confronting casual Neil Young fans with truths they wouldn’t have learnt from their right-wing media and it got people talking – and thinking. On those terms this might make it the most important album in this book and is a heroic wonderful record that deserves all our praise, though ‘Living With War’ isn’t for every fan and it also sounds a little dated today, the soundtrack to so many wars and presidents ago, more time sensitive than any other Neil Young record.

A now complete list of Neil Young and related articles at Alan’s Album Archives:

'Neil Young' (1968)

'Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere' (1969)

‘After The Goldrush’ (1970)

'Harvest' (1972)

'Time Fades Away' (1973)

'On The Beach' (1974)

'Zuma' (1975)

'American Stars 'n' Bars' (1977)

'Comes A Time' (1978)

'Rust Never Sleeps' (1979)

'Hawks and Doves' (1980)

'RelAclTor' (1981)

'Trans' (1982)

'Everybody's Rockin' (1983)

'Old Ways' (1985)

‘Landing On Water’ (1986)

‘This Note’s For You’ (1988)

'Freedom' (1988)

'Ragged Glory' (1990)

'Weld' (1991)

'Harvest Moon' (1992)

'Sleeps With Angels' (1993)

'Mirror Ball' (1995)

‘Silver and Gold’ (2000)

‘Are You Passionate?’ (2002)

'Greendale' (2003)

‘Prairie Wind’(2005)

‘Living With War’ (2006)

‘Chrome Dreams II’ (2007)

'Fork In The Road' (2009)

'Le Noise' (2011)

'A Treasure' (1986/2012)

'Storytone' (2014)

'The Monsanto Years' (2015)

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part One 1968-1972

Live/Compilation/Crazy Horse Albums Part Two 1977-2016

Surviving TV Clips 1970-2016

Neil Essay: Will To Love – Spiritualism and The Unseen In Neil’s Music