Brow Beat

Neil Young’s Oddly Apolitical Americana

Neil Young doesn’t just traffic in political statements set to music. There’s an entire half of his discography that’s suffused with casually homebound, countrified sentiments—the body of his solo catalog that opens up with the ’70s classic Harvest and has snakes all the way down to select (and great) cuts on more recent albums like Prairie Wind and Chrome Dreams II.

But Young has never stayed too long in those untroubled vistas before venturing out into the craggier territory that requires a political stance. Consider his response to the Kent State killings, “Ohio,” or his mocking evisceration of the first draft of “compassionate conservative” rhetoric, in “Rockin’ in the Free World,” and his even plainer take on the presidential son, “Let’s Impeach the President.”

Young’s fans have long been attuned to this binary: When the singer is feeling comfortably smart-ass or quixotically at his ease, you can expect an obscure album of personal sentiments—or a kooky genre exercise—to follow. But when he’s all het up about the state of the world, we expect some floor-shaking, rough-around-the-edges rock grind. Nothing cute in the color palette, just the raw look of rusting, decaying metal.

From a distance, Young’s latest record, Americana, had the latter look. It’s a covers album focused on populist-style campfire and protest songs, and the marketing materials describe it as one of Young’s bold statement records. Because it’s coming out in an election year, and because this is the first time Crazy Horse has brought its shambling power to a Young record since 2003, that’s what you’d expect—and, indeed, some reviewers have automatically interpreted Americana as though it’s a vessel for some dark and passionate riffing on social matters.

Despite their (sometimes) serious origins, though, the covered songs, as heard on Americana, prove to be goofs as much as anything else—and not just because Young and Crazy Horse can be heard trading casual banter between each jam.

“The emotions and scenarios behind these songs still resonate with what’s going on in the country today with equal, if not greater impact,” the record label boilerplate says. But how to square that sentiment with the erratic song-selection, including as it does both “This Land Is Your Land” and the doo-wop classic “Get a Job”? The former is familiar to us as a Woody Guthrie protest classic, and though Young sings it in full, he gets no special points for including oft-deleted lines critical about the “relief office,” “no trespassing” and the like. (After a decade-plus of Guthrie love, inspired by the Wilco/Billy Bragg Mermaid Avenue collaboration, there’s not a roots-rock fan who doesn’t know about the song’s tough, anti-capitalist edges.) Young and Crazy Horse treat it more gently and faithfully than any other song on Americana, and, as a consequence, without much energy. So much for “greater impact.”

Their take on “Get a Job” does have some get-up-and-go, though in the service of more humorous ends that are hard to interpret as “resonating with what’s going on in the country today.” Jokey-metered choruses about the feckless who must be harassed each morning by a woman “a-crying ‘Get a job!’” don’t particularly resonate with the ghastly unemployment situation post-2008.

And Young’s certainly not mocking the original song: The tone throughout Americana is one of reverence for the source material, even when arrangements are tweaked. Neither is the choice or execution of the song identifiably relevant to anything contemporary, once you get past the skin-deep, seeming relevance of its title. Likewise, the finale of Americana—a weird mashup of “God Save the Queen” (the actual anthem, not the Sex Pistols’ piss-take) with “My Country Tis of Thee”—seems more designed to make listeners aware of the depth of Young’s grab-bag of references than what any of this might add up to say.

To try to tease anything directly related to American concerns, circa now, from Young’s Americana, is a mistake—as Shepard Fairey found out after he was tapped by Young to whip up cover art for each track. Talking to Vanity Fair about his approach to the art for “Gallows Pole,” he said:

My interpretation of that was how depressing it was that your life could be assigned a monetary value, whether people acknowledge that on a daily basis—whether it’s lobbyists creating favoritism for corporations who don’t value individual’s contributions or a bounty hunter on your head. The ‘value of your life’ concept is very heavy so I wanted to focus on that. But Neil wanted to focus on the aspect of someone doing everything in their power to save your life, to come and get you. To base it on love. That piece ends up having both things addressed to it.

Well, maybe it has both. Or maybe, because Young refused to make the choice between the two, it has neither. Whether you find Fairey’s take compelling or not, at least he has attempted to imagine what “Gallows Pole” might mean to an audience listening to it with today’s headlines in mind. Young’s competing vision about human charity says nothing about the song’s specifically American resonance—which is odd for an album called Americana.

None of this means that Americana doesn’t sound great. It does. It’s almost scary to hear how, even after nine years of inactivity, his best-ever backing band still retains one of the most distinctive recipes for conjuring power. The way they tumble through Tim Rose’s old arrangement of “Oh Susannah” is the highlight of the record. Listening to it, one imagines that Crazy Horse will forever thrill on some instinctual level whenever they get it together to plug in and play. All you want on top of that is a singer-songwriter of Young’s caliber to bring his caterwaul to texts—whether originals or oldies—that honor and complement that unerring feel for catharsis.

Young will, naturally, continue to make his comfort albums, and any longtime fan of his music shouldn’t want him to stop. But inviting his most intense bandmates along for a low-engagement ride like Americana feels like sonic miscasting of the worst kind, the sort of mistake Young—for all his other quirks—hadn’t made, until now.