Review: Neil Young, Fork in the Road

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Neil Young
Fork in the Road
(Reprise)

Neil Young seems to toss off discs these days like a bad blogger: quick and topical, without much depth or time to think deeper thoughts. That’s a shame, because Young still sounds great, still has a fire in the belly to make hard-grungey music and now has the wisdom of the Old Man that he once wrote so famously about.

Fork in the Road is the latest near-throwaway from Young, a cross between his heavy-handed political genre efforts (Living With War) and the thematic/cinematic concept discs (Greendale). It is ostensibly about his beloved LincVolt, a Lincoln that Young converted to run on electricity. He uses the car as his metaphor for a lot of things that are wrong with the old U S of A, including our addiction to oil. “Fill ’er up/ She’s not the car that she used to be” he intones in “Fuel Line.” Har-har.

The sound throughout the disc is heavy Neil, but without the crunch and playfulness of Crazy Horse. Longtime collaborator Ben Keith is on board, but only on the last cut, “Light a Candle,” is there any delicacy normally found with Young-Keith efforts.

There are, as usual, some fine moments. “Johnny Magic” rocks hard, pushing a straightforward melody down the Interstate with the top down at about 88 miles an hour. The slower pace of “Off The Road” is perfect for a blazing fire on the beach at the end of a long day on life’s highway.

At his best, Young provides an outsider’s view of this nation, from its inception to modern times, with all its promise and hope and ugliness and warts. When he’s been topical (“Ohio”), he still managed to tell greater truths. He has wrung poetry out of stories with iconic characters like Pocahontas, Marlon Brando and Danny Whitten.

He inspired the Seattle grunge movement, notably Pearl Jam. He has produced more than a handful of masterworks (Harvest, Rust Never Sleeps, Tonight’s the Night), but also has produced some dogs so embarrassing that I am loathe to even mention them.

Fork in the Road is neither, just a good rockin’ collection of road songs that really aren’t about the road. Neil Young has one more great album in him, you just know it. This set of songs shows that he’s still trying, still working at the music every day, or, as he sings on “Get Behind the Wheel:” “You gotta get behind the wheel/ In the morning and drive.”

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