Neil Young has always been a solitary and solemn figure, a contrarian for the ages always determined to do things his way. On Peace Trail, his 38th album, Young opts for the stripped down approach, which is refreshing given the production of his pseudo-live album, Earth. While Earth was dominated with the backing of powerhouse support band, Promise of the Real, they’re nowhere to be found on the mostly sparse Peace Trail. Instead, Young collaborated with Jim Keltner on drums, and Paul Bushnell on bass. Those expecting an album similar to Harvest or at the very least, Silver & Gold are in for a surprise. Peace Trail sounds of the moment, disheveled and crusty as it was recorded in an astonishingly quick four days.
Peace Trail finds Neil Young experimenting with conflicting textures and technology that should be at odds with the aging folk artist. Peace Trail opens with the title track borrowing a guitar melody from “Love and Only Love,” before it’s greeted with a warm organ line and Young’s liberal usage of auto tune. Keltner’s percussion on “Peace Trail” bounces the song forward down a rocky path but the track never goes off the rails. There’s a stop-start jive occurring on “Can’t Stop Working” that’s highlighted by a damaged harmonica solo that demonstrates Young isn’t going quietly into the night.
For an album that’s disarmingly named Peace Trail, Neil Young is at his most caustic and political. Peace Trail finds Young reinvigorating the protest song with tracks such as “Indian Givers” and “John Oaks.” “Indian Givers” was the first song released from the album and aligns itself with the protestors who are trying to stop the expansion of the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline. “Indian Givers” is a tune that is buoyed by a prominent rhythm section that quickly overshadows Young’s guitar. “John Oaks” is a spoken word piece about the late eco-warrior that features a loping accompaniment.
“Texas Rangers” paints an increasingly horrific picture of the American border as it depicts how the rangers swoop down and capture illegals. “Texas Rangers” feels odd and out of place, it’s half-spoken word, skronk jazz and monotonous riffing. Elsewhere, the distorto harmonica returns on the paranoid “Oh Yoko” inspired fever-dream “Terrorist Suicide Hangliders.” Young borrows a page from Mark Kozelek as he double tracks his vocals on the country-fried “My Pledge.” Neil Young closes the proceedings with sardonic humor in “Glass Accident” as he dramatizes the seriousness of the incident with a scuzzy waltz. Young dissolves from view on “My New Robot” but leaves on a vocoder/choir high that hasn’t been felt since Trans. Young’s admirers will get the curmudgeonly commentary about technology; others will simply shake their heads.
Peace Trail is out December 9th via Reprise.