Monday, 4 December 2017
Neil Young and The Promise Of The Real “The Visitor” (2017)
Already One/Fly-By-Night Deal/Almost Always/Stand Tall/Change Of Heart/Carnival/Diggin’ A Hole/Children Of Yesterday/When Bad Not Good/Forever
‘You’re looking at one of the lucky ones, came here from there to be free’ or ‘My friend Al got the message!’
At last, the backlash against the backlash against immigration and Donald Trump’s disastrous policies begin to hit home. The same week we have the second Paddington film (immigrant brings innocent pleasure to millions and gets smeared with assumptions he must be a terrorist – well, that’s the subplot of the film as I see it) we get another immigrant challenging the idea that people are doomed to live in the tiny boxes they were born into all their lives. The opening lines of ‘The Visitor’ are that ‘I’m Canadian by the way’, Neil straight away under-cutting all the usual criticisms that he doesn’t deserve to talk about American policy because he’s only lived there for, what, fifty years now? Neil has by now become as American as apple pie, The Eagles and dodgy foreign policy this album to the point where many casual fans have assumed he was born an American, but for the first time in half a century the man who crept illegally over the border to play with Buffalo Springfield (and only retrospectively got a visa to do so when the band became a hit) feels threatened. Suddenly, with a dim-witted egocentric orang-u-tang as president, nobody feels safe anymore. Many of my American friends are feeling it, this sense of oppression that even though they’ve lived perfectly peacefully and happily for decades without being under threat, suddenly something indefinable has changed and they’re under attack for being dual citizens, black, poorly, Muslim, Jewish or simply poor. Trump broke all the rules when he got into power, including actually having any political experience whatsoever, and suddenly the unthinkable is becoming thinkable. Who could be next for deportation or prison or exile or torture? Which minority group is going to be taunted as being ‘Un-American’ next, even though technically only a small handful of American Indians count as fully American. Neil is, of course, unlikely to get thrown out, but only because he still earns a huge amount of money. He’s clearly thinking on this album, though, how life might have turned out if he was not Neil Young the famous musician but a failed Canadian musician struggling for a living, especially one still reeling from his third divorce and taking up with a (technically) out-of-work actress twenty years his junior. Neil once rallied behind America in a way few other rock and roll musicians ever did being famously pro-Reagan before the shock of the Gulf War gave him a different point of view), but now he feels less a vocal and more a ‘Visitor’. There’s even a police car on the front cover, the man inside about to arrest somebody. But is it innocent immigrants like Neil or Trump himself in the wake of the Mueller investigation? This album isn’t quite sure how the future will play out yet.
One thing you can guess about the future is that there will be a Neil Young album rush-released just before it. The first week in December has become his traditional slot now, with a variety of albums that show promise (some of them with backing band The Promise of The Real), all of which have begun to seem like summaries of the year. ‘Storytone’ was about the world losing control, ‘The Monsanto Years’ explored the rise of big business and how they were taking over the world with malpractice, last years’ ‘Peace Trail’ was about the rising protest of the liberal left and the confusion as the majority under Obama adjust to becoming a sizeable minority under Trump. This year ‘The Visitor’ nails better than any other how 2017 felt to live through it: the battle was lost last year in a snarling display of drums and politics and this year is more about numb shock, waiting for something bad to happen. Lots of bad has happened, of course, and there are plenty of pot-shots throughout one of Neil’s most politicised albums since the 1980s. But ‘The Visitor’ isn’t what we fans thought it might be after last year’s American Indian protest half-concept album by being a fully political beast attacking Trump the same way ‘Living With War’ called for the impeachment of George Bush Jnr for being, well, thick basically. Instead it’s a confused album that doesn’t quite know what’s going on, lurching blearily-eyed from crisis to crisis as the musical world keeps shifting beneath out feet. ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ protests the opening song and leading single ‘Already Great’ which wonders why Trump is trying to make America great again when it is already, in the eyes of a Canadian immigrant. ‘Stand Tall’ urges Neil’s listeners to stand together and be proud of what they’ve achieved, even if Trump tears it down. ‘When Bad Not Good’ taunts Trump with the same cry he once gave Hillary Clinton (‘Lock ‘em up!’) by wondering if he’ll be next. ‘Children Of Destiny’ urges the listener to ‘stand up for what you believe’. If you read the lyric sheet you would assume this was an upbeat, positive album about how there are too many of us to ever be squashed, but that’s not quite how the record sounds somehow.
The feel of this album is one of muddied confusion, with Neil branching back for a few genres we haven’t had for a while – cod blues, over-dramatic orchestrations, a first real use of gospel on a Young record with lots of choirs, even – mercy! – rap on ‘Fly By Night Deal’ and in ‘Carnival’ a whole new genre all on its own of ugly circus music, Neil chuckling like a bandit on laughing gas as he watched the world go to hell. Everything on this album sounds slightly out of kilter – usually Neil’s records are well programmed, bouncing from one extreme to another, but this album feels particularly weird, with the longest songs stacked nearly together, the short songs coming in a row and the weirdest and heaviest going song right in the middle rather than tucked at the end. Sometimes Neil uses The Promise Of The Real the same way he did on ‘Monsanto Years’, as young hungry bucks creating a wall of noise that’s going to knock bullies over; at other times he uses them as washes of colour over smaller or bigger arrangements, fragile enough to sound as if they’re the ones being bullies. Nothing feels ‘safe’ on this album anymore, with everything and everybody under attack or so it seems. Even Neil doesn’t feel safe, concerned that America has gone to hell on ‘his watch’ and the other thread of this album fits with the theme of his other recent albums stretching back to ‘Psychedelic Pill’ in 2012 and beyond: if this was the early 1970s CSNY could have stopped it all with a single and a tour, but those days are long gone. So what good is Neil as a single figure trapped in the headlights shaking his head and going ‘no’?! He sounds vulnerable here in a way he didn’t sound even after his health scare on ‘Prairie Wind’ suddenly aged him twenty years, unsure if everything he’s saying is worth it or not. Young’s song structure has been going weird for some time now, but its particularly strange here: sometimes songs are all long choruses, at other times we get a random phrase he likes so much he just repeats it over and over as if it’s a full verse (‘Earth is like a church without a preacher’ takes up the entire last five minutes of the album). Sometimes he’s direct and to the point and sometimes he’s poetic, using imagery and often surrealism to get his point across. Sometimes Neil does the same thing in the same song, switching lyrical gears even while the music is doing the exact same thing across the whole track! This makes for a really disorientating listening experience – the strength and weakness on ‘Storytone’ ‘Monsanto’ and two-thirds of ‘Peace Trail’ was their directness and bravery, but ‘The Visitor’ sounds as if its taken a back step, as if Neil is looking with one eye over his shoulder, unsure anymore as to whether a majority of his fanbase even think like him any more in a year of white supremacy, thick Nazis and terrorist attacks. This is an often ugly album about an often ugly world and Neil’s usual response to how to go about his music has deserted him.
Which is not to say that this album is bad. After a pretty awful low at the beginning of the 21st century, Neil has slowly worked his way back to strength, with this album moving on again from the promise of the last four LPs. Maybe its that I’ve got used to it or maybe Neil has by now, but suddenly his ‘first thought, best thought’ attitude doesn’t sound as off-putting as it used to. Given that everything on this album is so unsure of itself, it makes sense to have a few frayed edges in here. ‘Already Great’ is a powerful song already causing something of a minor fuss as I write, challenging the idea that America needs to change and ending with a rally ‘borrowed’ from the Civil Rights movement as the public try and reclaim ‘their’ streets from the apprentice politician (in both meanings of the word). The Johnny Cash ‘American’ style ‘Change Of Heart’ is a whole new way of approaching songwriting for Neil, as he recounts his first experiences of how politics change and challenge people and his desperate need to escape his local district – its quickly becoming one of my favourite modern-day Neil Young songs, even if it’s the most low-key moment on a low-key album. ‘Carnival’ is demented and very hard to love, but easy to admire, as Neil walks a high-wire act between being fire-eater and clown on a song so different to anything he’s done before, stretching himself like never before ‘held by centrifugal forces’. Closer ‘Forever’ is pretty astonishing too, one of those ‘On The Beach’ style magnum opuses where nothing happens but everything changes, a ten minute ramble of consciousness that sounds like a state of the union address – or warning. Neil can’t bring himself to confront the way the world is becoming head on, so he comes up with endless similes instead about how rudderless the world is and how much her people struggling. It’s a fascinating intense outpouring of grief turned into a personal story, all the more intense because of how low budget and low key it seems. My response to Neil Young albums often changes over hundreds of playings so I’m not sure yet, but on its first week of release I’m tempted to say that this is the best Neil album since ‘Living With War’ in 2006 –in many ways this album’s polar opposite, getting by on sheer power and nerve, not this album’s subtlety and thought.
It is, however, still lacking something to make it truly great. The songs that haven’t been mentioned yet aren’t just bad, but abysmal. Ever wanted to know how a rapping Neil Young might sound? Me neither, but we hear the results on ‘Fly By Night’ deal anyway, Neil using a near-fly by night genre that dropped out of relevance a decade ago to express sympathy and outrage on a song that’s clumsy in the extreme. ‘Almost Always’ is the one song here that sounds the way Neil always does, with elements of country, folk and rock passing through on a sleepy song that says nothing, badly. ‘Diggin’ A Hole’ is the single worst laziest blues song Neil has written yet – and dear God, this is a catalogue that includes ‘Vampire Blues’ and ‘Motorcycle Mama!’ ‘Children Of Destiny’ is a great song that’s given a truly awful arrangement, switching from fake brass band national anthem to equally fake posing arena rocker by turns, overwhelmed by a choir that makes the one on ‘Living With War’ sound muted and strings so treacly Mantovani would be allergic to them. ‘When Bad Not Good’ isn’t even a song, as Neil mocks ‘lock ‘em up!’ for two minutes and throws in some random words on a band jam gone wrong.
Actually the band is what’s ‘wrong’ with this album most, more so than the patchy songwriting. I got into big trouble for saying this last time out, so I’ve buried it here near the end of the review but…The Promise Of The Real are no CSNY. I hear what half my readers are saying: they’re yesterday’s news, they slow Neil down, they hate each other etc etc. But when the cause is good enough for them to put their differences aside, CSNY are great. Everything matters, everything hits home, everything sounds amazing, as hippie utopian idealism meets cynical realistic politics head on – I have never been nor will I ever be as moved as when listening to CSNY sing with angelic voices about how great the world could be and with an angry passionate sneer about how bad it currently is. ‘The Promise of The Real’ have promise, or at least they did on ‘Monsanto’, with an attack and a crunch but also an extra melody that makes them sound like Crazy Horse with a university degree. But they’re badly miscast on this album, which is too subtle to be reduced to their big chord crunch and key of C stomp. Neil seems to have realised this and limited their use to only part of the album, but even so the only songs where they sound at home are the two that sound like ‘Monsanto’, rallying cries that are simple enough to be sung along to on first hearing. They don’t have the raw commitment of the Horse, or the angry but musical zeal of CSNY. Only on the darker-tinged ‘Carnival’ do they show well they can work and even then eight minutes of lurching chord changes is an experience that’s not quite as high-wire and dangerous as it could be. The band still show promise and Neil’s worked with far worse bands over the years – but this is not their natural home.
Even so, there’s more on this album to praise than criticise. Neil seems to have taken it personally that Donald Trump once asked to use ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ as his ‘campaign’ song. He should perhaps have let Quasi Doda, The Hunchback of Notre Shame (as Trump is known in these parts) use it, because it is after all an ironic, bitter, sarcastic song: how can we keep rocking in the free world when so many of us aren’t really free? What impresses most about ‘The Visitor’ is how direct everything is, even the metaphorical stuff cuts to the bone. Neil once said in 2006 that he wished he didn’t have to make songs about illegal wars and hoped the younger generation would do it for him and he could stick to writing songs about his family, but that he only had a chance of touring with CSNY or The Dixie Chicks (‘I should have gone for the Dixie Chicks’ he sighs on the documentary of the tour ‘Déjà vu’). Once again he steps into the breach to fill the hole of a spokesperson for the beleaguered radical left and nails his colours to the mast, even though in times gone by Neil’s flag often flew to the right too, because he’s doing what he feels is ‘right’. He got endless flack about it a decade ago when Bush brought the average IQ in the White House down by about thirty points – he’s still fighting the fight a decade on now the IQ level has dropped again. What he does differently to ‘Living With War’, though, is that he’s far less specific about dates and details throughout: there’s no actual mention of Trump for instance, no mention of Russia or the ‘real’ president of the Disunited States (Putin), no sideswipes about a Mueller investigation or impeachment or a bigly idiot with tiny hands, just a single reference to ‘hiding behind a Wall, that will blow your mind!’ This album won’t age or date in the same way that ‘Living With War’ became old news within months after the rise of Obama – and yet somehow all its shots ring true, with a bravery no other artist has yet matched in the Trump age (perhaps because Neil is so prolific he’s got his Trump protest album out quicker than most). ‘We’ll set off for oblivion’ sings Neil on Change Of Heart’, ‘but wait – not so fast!’ This is an album caught right in the middle, between despair and hope, with the good and the bad more or less equally poised to take over. ‘I can’t predict what happens next – I love a future I don’t expect’ sighs Neil. Neither do we at the time of writing. Neil, then, might not have made the perfect album but he has summed up the schizophrenic confusing scary year that was 2017 pretty darn well – a time when we nearly lost everything but came out fighting, against a madman, his prejudice and a cabinet that’s more like a revolving door. This album, right here, is why we need to celebrate not denigrate immigration: we learn from our visitors as much as they learn from us. We still don’t know if that police car is here to arrest ‘us’ or Trump yet. We don’t know if here’s here to stay or a Mueller-banished fly-by-night. But we’re not going to go without a fight. And if we’re the ones that come in tolerance and peace, we’re the ones who are right. I still say the best album named ‘The Visitor’ and written by vulnerable outsiders is by Abba at their disintegrating peak though…
Oh the irony! ‘Let’s make America great again!’ said Trump at every opportunity he could, even though America’s troubles stemmed from a worldwide recession and not the actions of his predecessor Obama, who’d spent most of his career unable to make America greater because of a Republican congress. Only Trump took the few ways that America could still be great and took them all away. ‘Already Great’ is Neil’s snide attack on the blonde-haired-buffoon, a hymn to his adopted homeland that ‘you’re already great, you’re the promised land, you’re the helping land’. Neil is quick to point out his unique abilities to see whether America works or not as a ‘visitor’ to these shores himself (‘I’m Canadian by the way’ is this album’s unlikely starting point) and attacks the idea of a country built on immigration kicking out immigrants. Neil is quick to point out that this isn’t just his view either, quoting that this is ‘the word on the streets’ and using a mass gospel choir and a rally who demand ‘Whose streets? Our streets!’ throughout the song. Though Trump isn’t mentioned by name, Neil compares the current rhetoric to how America used to be, mentioning Roosevelt’s response to The Great Depression (the ‘New Deal’ which gave a boost to the poor and unemployed and avoided what may well have been another civil war) and he struggles to ‘put myself in your shoes’ to see what Trump does what he does. But he can’t work out why, for the life of him, Trump is so cruel and sighs that ‘I’m just one of the lucky ones’ – it’s his less than millionaire friends he worries about. Throughout the song doesn’t so much rock as waddle, a slower version of some very Neil style chords he’s used a lot before. This gives the song a lot of menace and his guitar and Lucas Nelson’s chase each other around the song, the actuality of America trying to catch up with the ideal. The guitarwork brims over with real passion, switching from a slightly comic riff to something much darker and uglier, before breaking off for a particularly inspired burst of gonzo soloing at the 4:30 mark, sounding like a man hurling himself off a ledge and struggling to climb back on again. Slowly across the song a solitary response to a dark time has turned into a mass march and Neil isn’t even singing lead anymore, instead playing back up to a mass protest who chant ‘No wall, no ban, no fascist USA…Whose Streets? Our streets!’ If Trump isn’t feeling scared right now, he’s an even bigglier idiot than we thought he was. The result is a striking opener, one that’s deliberately provocative and damning and courageous and yet isn’t as specific or as time-orientated as ‘Living With War’. You sense this is a song of outrage that will live on long after the monsters behind it have been forgotten. The Promise Of The Real were born for crunching sloganeering songs like this one too and turn in the best performance on the album, while Neil’s taunting vocal is delicious, revelling in both the sunshine of the chorus and the stormclouds of the verses.
I’m less keen on ‘Fly By Night Deal’ which starts with a clumsy xylophone version of the main riff and then comes on like a killer rocker, with jagged pawing guitars and a real grit and raw attack that, like the best Neil songs, is actually slow but has so much going on it all sounds really fast, like a train in perpetual motion. And then it’s all ruined as M C Neil puts on a baseball cap and gets down with da kids, rapping away like a department store assistant at Christmas time. ‘Celebrate, celebrate as it ain’t too late!’ he barks, ‘Try to be nice and be sincere, even though my blood is boiling in here!’ This isn’t even good rapping, with nothing really to say except a lot of shouting as the ‘real’ story is being told in the musical bits, which would have made for a better song. When Trump got elected he became the first ‘businessman’ to become president. Naturally most of his choices have been businesslike rather than political – cutting deals, saving money, squashing expensive but integral libertarian pursuits. What the people don’t seem to realise as much as they should is that he’s a failed businessman – having inherited millions from his dad and being declared bankrupt several times, Trump still has less money in the bank than he would have done if he’d kept the family money in the bank and done absolutely nothing with it. In this song America is being auctioned off to the highest bidder, the united states being cut up again in the name of greed and profit. The Promise Of The Real intone like a ghost that ‘this ain’t no fly by deal’ as they taunt Trump with the fact that he’s got his sums wrong – being the leader of the free world does not equate with getting the highest price and Trump is going to be trumped, seen for the crooked conman he really is. Neil’s rap switches between being ‘himself’ and being Trump, angrily castigating ‘move those animals outta here!’ However the most interesting moments aren’t what he’s barking at us but what he’s saying with music. Neil’s been playing with the settings of his harmonica for a while now and it’s never sounded better than here as it drips with distortion, anger and betrayal, something so tough and strong that the ‘Trump’ theme played on a child’s xylophone sounds ever more hopeless and unfit for the presidential role it’s been cast in. There’s a great riff too, mocking and mischievous, but we can’t sodding hear it because of M.C. CSNY up there. So nearly Neil, so nearly. Don’t use a fly by night genre on what could have been one of your greatest songs! Note how similar drummer Tato Melgar’s count-in sounds to Stephen Stills by the way!
‘Almost Always’ is the one album song that feels like we’ve been here before, especially on ‘Harvest Moon’. The melody recalls ‘From Hank To Hendrix’ and the acoustic guitar riff is identical to ‘Unknown Legend’ (is 1992 where Neil is up to revising his ‘Archives’ by now?) A slow smoky ballad, this song finds Neil looking back even further to his childhood, spending his time with ‘a game show host’ (his mother Rassy) and his time in Canada. Neil remembers when he first got political, when he realised the gulf between the haves and the have-nots of the world and he wondered why his friends were often mistreated for who their parents were, not who they were and what they stood for. At the time America seemed like the ideal, urging Neil to ‘do what’s right’, as he believed in the promised land that he could aspire to one day. ‘Maybe just a feeling things are bound to change’ Neil looks forward to the day he too can become an American, feeling the pull of ‘just that crazy searchlight lighting someone’s way’. There’s no ‘after’ picture to go with this song – I guess the rest of the album is instead – and Neil rounds off the song by comparing himself with Trump. Both are ‘crazy birds out on a limb’ doing their own thing, but Neil’s drew him to where he always longed to be and Trump wasted his time when he could have been making the world a better place ranting on twitter (something other reviewers have picked up on thanks to the ‘crazy bird’ logo). The result is low-key but likeable, a song that always feels as if it’s about to drift into something else but never quite gets there – fitting, really, given this lyric of America never quite matching the ideal young Neil had in his head. The Promise Of The Real sound hopeless though, unable to have anything big and bold on this song to get their teeth into and they lack Neil’s use of dynamics, where he steals the song with a harmonium part similar to the one Poncho played on ‘Like A Hurricane’ (but heard here without the hurricane on top to keep things interesting!)
‘Stand Tall’ starts off with a point about fake news and whether people would believe ‘unicorns are real’ if they were told it. Neil instinctively ‘knows’ what is and what isn’t real and believes his own ears – he’s astonished that so many people are taken in by Trump’s lies (though again he’s not named in song) just because he says they’re true. One of those big, bold, charity single type songs, this song sounds like it should have come out in the mid-1980s though the mood is very much ‘now’, confused and distracted. Neil’s melody line is overtly simple, his most basic in decades, because it needs to be to cut through all the distractions of the rest of the song (and in the rest of the world) as we hear chatter, hear random guitar parts and get some harmonies from Promise Of The Real best described as ‘frazzled’. Throughout it all Neil tries to urge us to ‘stand tall’. The result doesn’t work quite as well as the similar ‘Walk Like A Giant’ from ‘Psychedelic Pill’ though and the words seems confused as to what it’s trying to be, stretching out from kicking Trump to being a ‘Monsanto’ outtake with some very basic ecological pleas (Mother Earth is ‘the dawn of our day, the light of our way’!) Neil fits in some groovy guitar soloing near the end, sounding more like Hendrix than his usual style, but the song itself feels as if its lacking something and is rather over-written, a little too basic for its own good (‘Don’t you get me wrong, ‘cause we’ve got to be strong’).
The lovely ‘Change Of Heart’ makes up for this though, as Neil does a Dylan and speak-sings in a gruff voice over a lovely backing and speaks to the people who votes Trump in looking for change, urging them to admit their mistake. He wants them to shift their position, to ‘move a mountain, or move a mouse’, whatever it takes to make them rescue America before it’s too late. Young compares Trump supporters to Donald’s own plans for a wall on the Mexican border, cutting themselves off from the rest of humanity in their own little world. Neil’s learnt the art of subtlety in his political polemic now, though, and turns in a moving story about how sometimes a little change is all it takes. He again remembers a childhood that was once so different, when he cared for nobody but himself, before he had the kindness of a ‘pastor when I was nine or ten’ who showed him the responsibilities that come with actions. ‘Don’t be angry and spill the cup’ Neil urges, so close to tasting liberty and freedom, desperate to right the anxiousness and helplessness he feels in his adopted homeland. ‘Change of Heart’ is a good title too – it of course means feeling something different in context, but it also means actually getting a heart, of reaching out and accepting that you going without a little bit is better in the longterm than a majority of people going without a lot. ‘You can’t use hate’ he urges the world, ‘even as cement’ – walls should come down between us, not be built up. This sweet folky song suggests Neil has been listening to a lot of Pink Floyd, with this ukulele-driven folk song coming with the same bounce as ‘Outside The Wall’ and the song is no worse for that. Neil has never sounded more like a kindly Grandad spouting wisdom to a younger generation who hasn’t lived the busy life he has or seen the consequences first hand (this song recalls the head-hanging songs that came with the ‘doom trilogy’ in the wake of Danny Whitten’s death and the end of the original Crazy Horse). The Promise Of The Real meanwhile have never been more childish, singing in falsetto and playing cutesy parts on their instruments. It kinda works though, for one song at least, and the result is a really lovely song that reaches out to ‘them’ with the love and peace they won’t afford to ‘us’. This low-key subtle song is quickly growing on me as the best Neil song of the decade so far, intelligent and heartfelt with some great metaphors in the gruff vocal, telling it like it is but with just the right dash of hope!
I’m getting quite fond of ‘Carnival’ too, even though I haven’t got a clue what it’s about and I feel an extra slice of my sanity disappearing every time I hear it. I think it’s another reference to how helpless the world suddenly feels with so many of the ‘wrong’ people in charge, with what should be the scene of ‘the greatest show on Earth’ turned inward until it sounds evil and terrifying, an unfair instead of a funfair. Neil laughs and cackles throughout the song like he’s been possessed (he would make a great Bond villain), while The Promise Of The Real whoop and cheer him on, turning ‘Carnival’ from a barker’s cry into something other-worldly and threatening. This feels, though, as if its not just about the world crises but a return to the personal outpouring on ‘Storytone’ about the breakup of Neil’s three-decade marriage to wife Pegi to be with Darryl Hannah. Throughout the song the narrator is driven on by a strange lust and attraction he doesn’t understand (although his vision with ‘flaming red hair’ doesn’t sound much like Darryl or the fact that ‘the devil himself may have been her father’, his view of her as the only person who ‘gets’ him in a ‘pot pourri of nature’s mistakes’ rings true. He sings about all his wives in turn though, adding ‘I loved her dearly at the time’ and recalling ‘the sugar in her eyes’ – each romance is a leap into the unknown that risks leaving him looking like a clown. Life is suddenly a freak-show and Neil is flying through the air on a ‘giant trapeze’ to get away from it, using his faith to convince himself to jump off and catch him, although he knows he might too fall to an ugly demise on the ground down below. We think for a moment that’s what’s happened too as the song hovers in mid-air before the same insistent tune keeps playing and Neil’s inner demon laughs him on to make another leap. Other verses are less clear though and sound like Neil is having fun playing at being his new mate Jack White for a track that The White Stripes would have had fun with (what is the elephant of enlightenment exactly? A reference to their biggest selling album perhaps?) The result is a fascinating song that never quite goes where you think it will, with shades of the bullfight from ‘Eldorado’ but aside from that no recognisable things from Neil’s past at all, with everything turned weird, even his vocal which is treated as if its being heard through a megaphone and which is manic and possessed throughout. An experiment that won’t be to everyone’s taste, especially stretched out to eight minutes, but it’s great to hear Neil stretching himself and become a fire-eater after ten years of having him portrayed as a clown – even if that means we the audience get singed a little too. Cue manic evil laughter…
Alas ‘Diggin’ A Hole’ is a lazy derivative blues number that makes Neil temporarily sound as if he’s joined Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings. It takes a full forty seconds in this one hundred and fifty second song before we get any words that aren’t either the title or ‘woooooooah’. The second sentence, stretched out across the next thirty, is worth waiting for at least: ‘My grandchildren gonna need a long rope!’ Trump is taking people’s freedoms away, the world is turning from the liberal left to the righteous right and we are ever further from the 1960s hippie spirit (which Neil seems to believe in now, though he was one of the few baby boomer musicians who hated it at the time). The millennial generation, born into a world that is already groaning from the weight of too many workers and not enough jobs, doesn’t know what to do with them so it villainises them, dismisses them as being whiny and lazy, when all they really are is unlucky. Neil recognises that life for the young isn’t like it was in his day, so seems to wish for them to have a future where they’re not so controlled, or worried about doing something ‘wrong’ to haunt them in a career when there’s nothing to choose between so many great able students. The world, though, is going to need them and is ‘diggin’ a hole’, falling into a trap of its own making, whereby in the future nobody will have any skills or any chance to think outside the box. This is how empires end, but sadly its not how the song ends and it simply fades suddenly on another agonised cry of ‘wooooooah’ just as the track seemed to get going. Did one of the band play a mistake? Was this song just a band jam that got out of hand? Or was it cut before it was too boring? In which case why did we get the preceding two minutes at all?!? Neil isn’t terribly good with blues and this song recalls ‘Blue Eden’ anyway, a far more inventive improvised cut.
‘Children Of Destiny’ was picked as the album’s first single. Of course it was: it’s so designed as a singalong song that sounds like people imagine Neil always does nowadays that it sounds as if it was created for that purpose from the get-go. Similar to the overblown ‘God Bless America’ that rounded out ‘Living With War’, it’s a tortured failed re-make of ‘Give Peace A Chance’, with a similar stomp and a familiar sense of trying to get the audience to actively take part. But like many a song reduced to its bare bones it’s so simple it sounds stupid: ‘Preserve the ways of democracy so the children can be free!’ The song also insists on going backwards just as its got going, turning from a swampy boom-chikka beat to a sweeping orchestral part that’s big and bold and sweet, before that too swells back to where we began. That might be deliberate, the song structured to be like The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ so it keeps going round in circles, caught up in a cycle of entrapment, freedom and entrapment again. But it’s all so clumsy – you spend the song bracing yourself for when the snarling guitars are going to crash in again and they do, three times the song’s three minute running time. The brass score is also way too over the top and the return of the mass choir – the weakest element of ‘Living With War’ – is a true backwards step. The Promise Of The Real, meanwhile, sound as if they can’t work out if Neil means this song or is pulling their leg so they end up with n uneasy hybrid of both. Oh dear. This may be your destiny Neil, but it ain’t mine. ‘How would you act on that new day? ‘he asks. Personally I’d just celebrate the fact that things have improved to the point where I don’t have to listen to empty protest songs like this one. Bring CSNY back, please!
‘When Bad Got Good’ is another oddly empty song and surely the result of another band jam. ‘Lock ‘em up!’ Neil intones over a bluesy backing as Willie Nelson’s kids kick up a screaming guitar riff behind him. A stream of consciousness take on the Trump year (surely it won’t be years plural?) it mixes random images: ‘he lies, you lie, lock ‘em up!’ This is, of course, a taunting cry from Trump’s twitter feed, used against everyone from rival Hillary Clinton (‘but those emails!!!’ is looking like an ever more fragile argument in the wake of the Mueller investigation) to immigrants. Neil uses the phrase back on Trump (again not actually named here) as he has fun purring his vocal and letting the lines drip with irony. At the time of writing it very much looks as if Trump is going to prison; the question is just how many people will be in jail with him when the time comes. Neil is surely allowed his brief wry chuckle after a year of hell, although this song is as thrown away as his triumphant take on Nixon (‘Goodbye Dick!’ improvised at the night’s gig following his resignation and heard on ‘CSNY ‘74’). It’s a serious subject that deserves a better response than muttering ‘lock ‘em up!’, a phrase that – fingers crossed – won’t mean anything in the wider world for much longer.
At least the album is saved by ‘Forever’. I’ve been reading that many fans don’t like this rambling ten minute track and it does indeed feel like it goes on ‘forever’. But to these ears it’s a welcome return to the sort of lengthy unstructured songs from ‘On The Beach’, the album that wondered why the world was going to hell with Nixon in charge. Neil’s been here before so rather than tell us how to get out of it or the bright future we ought to have, he just describes what he sees around him as it happens again. He sees America, the world he once longed to move to as a Canadian, full of people trying to escape it, with everybody seemingly talking of moving where he lives and with boxes of possessions piled up on their driveways. A first verse mixes nature and religion: there’s no God to save us, ‘the people have to pray for themselves’ and we’re just a bunch of planets ‘floating in space, like bubbles’. One of Neil’s biggest issues with Trump has long been his careless approach to climate change and he reminds us here that the trees that are keeping us all alive are ‘no use’ because they have ‘nothing more to sell’. There’s also a repeat of Cat Stevens’ ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, with contractors taking over kids playgrounds, big business in a competition with imagination that can only have one winner in the short term and the opposite winner in the long run. ‘That’s how it ends in the beginning’ Neil sighs, as he ‘plans to say goodbye’, imagining his own at the point where he’s still creating rather than taking, adding to the world not going away. Neil slips in the line that ‘Al got the message’ – apparently he’s an intelligent neighbour thinking of leaving, but maybe Neil’s been reading this site heh heh heh. The song isn’t that literal though: in his imagination Neil also sees ‘sea creatures’ and ‘galleons of old’, watching his adopted nation’s history built up over several centuries crash into the shore in a massive blitz of self-destruction. The songwriter who more than any was gung-ho about America during the cold war has now watched capitalism ‘lose’, not because of war but sabotage. Like CSN song Wooden Ships Neil tries to imagine the future, but his idea is so much bleaker: Americans go back to living ‘like tribesman’, each one sticking to their own town, their own race, their own ideology, state pitted against state. The hippies are no longer escaping in sailboats because there aren’t any left – instead everything happens inland, with America turning inward, isolated in individual bubbles. Somehow, though, this song is not bleak – well not as bleak as ‘Motion Pictures or ‘Ambulance Blues’ anyway. Neil knows that things will get better, that bad luck and good luck swap over in a merry dance between left and right. Though he admits the bad luck has come ‘in torrents’ he still sees ‘clover’ under the grass, watered by the storms that batter it. He knows that the liberals will come good again, eventually. As with so many of Neil’s long and most rambling songs we get one image that gets repeated over and over, in lieu of a chorus and thankfully it’s a good one. ‘The Earth is like a church without a preacher’ Neil sighs, the perfect vehicle for peace and love and humanity – but the people who believe in that are never the ones who get into power. Back in 2006 Neil once sang that America was ‘Lookin’ For A Leader’ and may as well have added the caveat from ‘Lookin’ For A Love’ that ‘I haven’t met her yet and she’ll be nothing like I pictured her to be (but I hope that she’ll be kind and won’t mess with my mind)’. Here he is, eleven years on, still looking: the future is uncertain and Neil doesn’t know where the answers are coming from, but he does know that they are out there – and that, in turn, the good will turn to bad again sometime down the road. That’s a big subject for even a lengthy song and the sleepy backing does its best to convince us that not much is going on. But it is – this may well be one of the most significant works of recent Neil Young albums, as ignored now as ‘On The Beach’ was at the time of release, a song of weary resignation rather than angry action. But it matters. And in its own quiet way this song is beautiful, in a doomed kind of way.
Overall, then, ‘The Visitor’ is a fascinating album. It will almost certainly be an unpopular album, pissing off the few right-wing voters Neil still has in his fanbase (Croz was crucified for telling a similar fan to go listen to some other band on twitter the other day, but it’s not like they don’t have enough of their own to listen to, eh, Ted Nugent?) But that’s kind of the point: Neil’s sales have been slipping a lot the past twenty years and every time he tries to run after them he’s only really made things worse. With so many Neil Young albums coming out like clockwork nowadays, it’s hard to keep up with them all so fans aren’t getting excited the way they used to. Neil can afford to write and sing from the heart again and he does on his bravest work in some time. Young is no longer on auto-pilot, well not much, but looking for new ways to express what he feels has happened so many times in our past. There are, though, no shortcuts: some songs are too long, others are too short, others are just ugly (or on ‘Carnival’ downright scary). Sometimes Neil offers us these albums just for the hell of it (‘Greendale’ seemed to exist only to annoy old fans like me). But sometimes, just sometimes, he makes these albums because there’s no other way to make them; like ‘On The Beach’ (an album that was also hated or at best ignored on first release) the album turned out ugly, defensive and repetitive because that’s the way the world was at the time. Everyone is depressed, hopeless, confused. Only Neil feels like he knows that’s going on because he was there for Watergate in 1974 and has dedicated his career to teasing out the ups and downs of human existence. But even he gets scared and frustrated by just how unprecedentedly bad everything is, almost always. There is, though, just enough quiet hope staring out between this album’s eyes filled with tears to make ‘The Visitor’ worth visiting. ‘I’m Canadian by the way’ the album begins, as if Neil is distancing himself from all the problems Americans have with their public image around the world. But by the end Neil sounds more American than ever, determined that no deranged orange cretin with silly hair is going to kick him out of his country to make a quick buck and instead determined that he’s going to say put in his homeland ‘forever’. Through a combination of attack, defence, gloating, misery, stream of consciousness rambles and whatever the hell ‘Carnival’ is all about, Neil offers up one of his most rounded responses yet about what that means for him – and leaves us still unsure whether that police car on the front cover (so like the corvette buried in the sand on the front of ‘On The Beach’) is here to take him away or Trump. And which of them, in an era when everyone whose been happily in America for fifty years being no trouble suddenly finds themselves being deported, is the real visitor just passing through. I know who my money’s on (Neil always wins) and will pack his bags myself if it will get trump out of The White House any quicker…
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