There's just something about a bitter, aged ex-hippie singing the abhorrence of a presidential administration that doesn't quite grip a nation's attention. At the heart of every effective protest is the intensity of youth, which is why Neil Young's ornery 2006 political statement, Living With War, didn't exactly start any fires.
Sorry Neil, but sitting on stacks of money in an air-conditioned mansion at the age of 62, preaching for the impeachment of President Bush just doesn't have the same resonance as standing in protest marches under a hot Kent State sun at the fiery age of 25, singing "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio."
Obviously, it's not Young's fault his age plays a factor in his legitimacy. And sure, he has every right to be upset with the leaders of America. But as a legendary musician of decades past, he should observe the recent releases of his colleagues like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to see how a rocker can age gracefully. And that seems to be exactly what he did for his recent follow-up to that Iraq-ignited complaint-fest. The sequel to an album Young never released, Chrome Dreams II, put out late in October, is a mishmash of lost gems and new material that is a mostly delightful love letter to country roads and blue skies, a throwback to Young's early work like Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) and Harvest (1972).
When it was announced that the Chrome Dreams II album would feature two folk-rock epics (epic is an understatement), one clocking in at over 18 minutes and another that breaches 14, some critics understandably thought Young finally lost his mind. But in reality, these two songs - "Ordinary People" and "No Hidden Path," respectively - are the colossal centerpieces of the album, not overdrawn but rather patiently calculated. "Ordinary People," in particular, is a monolithic masterpiece, a pastel portrait of working class America.
"The downtown people/Some are saints, and some are jerks/everyday people/Stoppin' for a drink/on their way to work," Young sings, and maybe he's being too sentimental. But he's sincere, probably more so than when he tries to stir the pot with his political banter, and the gorgeous horn section that paces behind his voice is entrancing; it's just as affective as his use of the London Symphony Orchestra on the Harvest track, "A Man Needs a Maid."
While those two lengthy focal points eat up a good amount of the album, there really isn't that much memorable material beyond it, unfortunately. "Shining Light" sounds like an uninspired attempt to write the next "This Land is Your Land," and the opening track, "Beautiful Bluebird" is at best an inoffensive nursery rhyme. "The Believer," though, sees Young at his most playful, and it's a refreshing feature. Also noteworthy is the heartwarming closer, "The Way," whose deft and unpretentious utilization of a children's choir is quite an achievement in and of itself.
It's nice to see Young overlook his role as a voice of a generation of people and just sit down to write some songs for himself. It worked wonders for Dylan, whose last two releases, Love and Theft and Modern Times, have been his best in years, and it's working here for Young, as well, even if Chrome Dreams II is a little uneven in the end.