An unmitigated, borderline unlistenable disaster.
In what is perhaps his most oft-quoted lyric, Neil Young informs us that it is, “Better to burn out than to fade away.” Used time and again to describe those who burned too brightly for too short a period of time rather than suffer the ignominy of a protracted artistic decline, this statement plays something like a punk rock take on Dylan Thomas’ advice to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Yet even Young himself—on the same song, no less—would rephrase it as “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust,” using the corrosion of metal as an analogy for a career in a seemingly endless decline. By fading away, the pain of a once prominent artist floundering in their later years eventually gets pushed to the background and essentially forgotten. In opting to rust, however, the prolonged creative decay remains on full display, the artist themselves becoming a victim of their own legacy as they are time and again held to the standard of their epitomic sound.
So can a once great artist be forgiven their latter day sins and remain a revered figure within the world of pop music? Or does the rusting away, this creative corrosion and deterioration, negate any and all previously-earned goodwill and critical praise? With an artist like Neil Young—the cantankerous, unwaveringly indomitable ‘60s-survivor that he is—there is an indisputable legacy of brilliance and an ever-growing lineage of those influenced by his talent that can be held up as evidence of his seemingly unimpeachable status within the pantheon of rock gods. Yet since the 1970s, his recorded output has been so scattershot, so seemingly unconcerned with any uniform level of quality as to throw into question his purported greatness. As he continues to tour, record and position himself as a champion of environmental causes, more and more of the aforementioned rust has begun to show.
The question then becomes: Does this then make him of victim of not heeding his own advice? In a sense, yes. By refusing to call it a day and rest easy knowing he has left behind an impressive catalog that spans the better part of two decades, he has continued on for an extra four decades during which he released some of the worst, most questionable music of his half century-plus career. Had he, like so many of his peers, burned out at his prime he could well have ended up as lionized as Hendrix, Joplin, Lennon and, to a far lesser extent, Morrison. Those who ended up burning out are then measured solely by their recorded output and the tantalizing prospect of what could have been had they lived. With Young, we are afforded a glimpse of what these idealized musical futures may have actually looked like. And it’s not always a good thing.
Indeed, 2016 would seem an ideal year for a passionate artist to set the protest movement’s concerns to song a la the Civil Rights-era musings of Seger and Dylan. And, of course, there are those who are keenly aware of and bringing to light the myriad racial and social inequities currently transpiring within the United States, but they tend to be relegated to the fringes of popular music consumption; in other words, there is no 21st century Dylan. That Young should even attempt such a herculean effort nearly 40 years past his prime—save perhaps his brief resurgence as a grunge icon in the early-‘90s—seems laughable at best, pitiable at worst. While admirable in spirit, this antiquated approach to affecting change feels more like the cultural relic it ultimately has become. It’s almost quaint how the aging hippies have remained vehemently as such in the face of an increasing social malaise.
For his second release of 2016 following the bloated, overly self-indulgent mess of a live album that was Earth, Young retreats to the studio to unleash the haphazardly conceived, excremental waste of time and space that is Peace Trail. Like its live predecessor, there is nothing of redeeming value present: the performances are beyond half-assed; the lyrics sub-high school stoner “poetry”; and the general sentiment being, “I’m Neil Young, I can do whatever the fuck I want and people will buy it.”
Moving back into lyrical abstraction and rudimentary poeticism, Young abandons his more direct political and social posturing in favor of a more abstruse point of view on the title track. It’s a short-lived retreat as he spends much of the remainder of the album vacillating between environmentalist and native peoples’ causes to varyingly shallow and tossed-off degrees. “Can’t Stop Working” seems to address the concern regarding his slow slide into rust. “Where have I been for all these years/ I thought I knew you better” over a rhythm reminiscent of his earlier triumphs. “I can’t stop working cuz I like to work when nothing else is going on,” he sings, essentially summing up why he continues even when it’s perhaps not in the best interest of either himself or his legacy.
There’s a rough-hewed, first-take quality to the performances here, indicative of the tossed-off manner in which Young has seemingly been releasing albums now for the better part of the last several decades. It comes as little surprise that the entire album was recorded in four days and consists primarily of first takes. It’s a sloppy mess of an album that sounds it. His wildly distorted harmonica, sounding like a dying vacuum on full blast through a miniature PA system emanating from the bottom of a well, tears through more than half of these tracks without rhyme or reason. It’s a frustrating mess of a decision that seems to exist solely because it could. It’s embarrassingly difficult to listen to, as though your parents’ burned-out hippie friends got together to try and make a folk rock record in the garage after smoking away their last remaining brain cells. There is nothing redemptive here, save perhaps the title track, a false indicator of what is to come.
On “Indian Givers” he moves back into the more overtly political, intoning “I wish somebody would share the news,” ostensibly regarding the plight of the native peoples of the US and Canada. It’s a well-meaning attempt at tackling a much larger social issue. “Bring back the days when good was good,” he sins before delving back into his environmentalist crusader guise on the lyrically ridiculous “John Oaks.” Touted as the “protector of the trees,” it’s easily one of the worst songs Young has ever recorded. It borders on the parodic with its absurdly simplistic and sloganeering approach. It’s a mess. It needs to be heard to be believed.
“Texas Rangers” is perhaps the most bizarre track here, often sounding like a Shaggs cover with its clattering, arrhythmic style and nonsensical lyrics. “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders” features the lyrics “I never knew til yesterday my life would end tomorrow” and “I think I know who to blame/ It’s all those people with funny names/ Moving into our neighborhood/ How can I tell if they’re bad or good?”. With even legendary session-drummer Jim Keltner struggling to follow Young’s seemingly stream-of-consciousness performances, you can’t help but cringe as the album progresses and teeters on the edge of collapse and implosion.
With “My Pledge” you can actually hear Young attempting to sort out the lyrics under his breath before he launches in to a spoken-word diatribe coupled with a completely unnecessary vocoder vocal echo. “I’m lost in this new generation” is an understatement. And while he certainly pioneered the electronic vocal approach on Trans, here he sounds woefully out of touch and gimmicky.
Saving the absolute worst for last, “My New Robot” is top contender for worst fucking song of the year, if not all time. It’s a confused mess that simply ends, seemingly mid-song as if he lost interest mid-track, said fuck it, called it a day and sent the album off to the presses. The question then becomes, “Why do we even bother with hope for a great or even mediocre Neil Young album anymore?” It’s as though he simply no longer gives a fuck whatsoever and is content to put out whatever he wants, whenever he wants with little to no regard to quality. Peace Trail is an unmitigated, borderline unlistenable disaster.