In May, 61-year-old rock star Neil Young gave the world a preview of how popular culture and politics can interact in the 21st century.
By now, most readers know about Living With War, Young’s new album of grungy, anti-Bush agitprop recorded in less than a month and unveiled instantly on the Internet. For a few weeks this spring, Living With War saturated the media atmosphere—from The New York Times to NPR and E! Entertainment Television. The lead of all the stories was Young’s song “Let’s Impeach the President,” an eminently hummable, bitterly funny, and deadly serious bill of indictment that leaves no room for misinterpretation. The album contains several equally blunt musical instruments—including songs titled “Shock and Awe” and “Lookin’ for a Leader”—alongside more up-close and personal glimpses of life during wartime in “Families” and “Flags of Freedom.” The album also features Young’s roaring, distorted electric guitar over tub-thumping bass and drums, with the occasional martial flavor of a solo trumpet (which breaks into a few notes of “Taps” at the start of “Let’s Impeach the President”).
For 36 years, Young has been the Jekyll and Hyde of rock. Dr. Jekyll is introspective and acoustic, a sensitive soul who makes albums such as Harvest, Comes A Time, and last year’s Prairie Wind. Mr. Hyde is a quasi-metal rocker who turns out demented slabs of feedback such as After the Gold Rush, Rust Never Sleeps, and Ragged Glory. I can’t imagine anyone except Young could love them all equally.
I’m with Mr. Hyde myself, so I find Living With War to be Young’s most musically interesting work in a decade. Dr. Jekyll fans may beg to differ. But in either case, the way Young has launched this musical mortar into the pop cultural arena is at least as interesting as the noise it makes.