Sound — 7
I have to admit that things I like about albums has changed dramatically since I took this job as a reviewer for Ultimate Guitar, especially from a production standpoint. In an era where so many bands spend so much time in the studio adding more and more layers and overproducing their albums, I've started to find it quite refreshing to hear when highly-respected artists and bands strip down their sound and produce more "organic"-sounding records. It almost seems as if the idea of recording an album live off the floor, baring your soul on the first take, no matter how imperfect, and leaving it on the final product is becoming somewhat of a lost art. Even when respected bands in the metal scene such as Meshuggah do the same thing, it seems as if there's still a significant amount of editing and studio trickery to attain perfection in the final product.
You'll hear no such thing on "Peace Trail," the latest offering from Canadian music veteran Neil Young, his 37th studio album overall. Featuring a rather sparse core lineup consisting only of himself on guitars and vocals, and session musicians Jim Keltner on drums and Paul Bushnell on bass, Neil and his bandmates work their magic on this collection of songs that are mostly first or second takes, sometimes beautiful in how ugly the sounds on this album are, straight from the fuzzed-out guitar chords of the title track which opens the album being combined with loose drumming and Neil's gentle vocals (sometimes augmented with a strange vocoder or auto-tune-like effect that almost sounds a little out of place, but strangely kind of works here). While Rubin himself was not involved with the production of the album, it was recorded in his Shangri-La Studios, produced by Neil Young and John Hanlon, which probably explains the almost "anti-production" on the album.
"Can't Stop Workin'" features a more predominantly acoustic-led style, produced in a very raw and intimate style. The track features highly distorted harmonica soloing that almost sounds a bit like the guitar tone of Adrian Belew, or Neil Young's own guitar style at its noisiest. "Indian Givers" is Neil's show of solidarity with the Native Americans demonstrating against the expansion of oil pipelines through their territory, with a very simple shuffle rhythm and more distorted harmonica. The album isn't entirely political, unlike his last album, "The Monsanto Years," but songs like this one do continue in the more political vein of Young's music as of late. "Show Me" contains some of Neil's most "Neil-Young-esque" acoustic chord work I can think of on this album so far, and you can hear the imperfections of the playing quite clearly throughout this song. It's actually quite amazing how the human element is emphasized so much on this album, while almost satirically eschewed in others, like the occasional auto-tuned vocal part or the extremely heavy distortion on his harmonica playing.
"Texas Rangers" is a rather short song featuring some more interesting chord work, and more loose, almost reggae-like drumming, along with even more of the trademark wailing harmonica, that also features in the next song, "Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders," a tune in the vein of his classic material, with lyrics railing against xenophobia and racism. "John Oaks" is another rather folky track with more deeply ecologically-minded lyrical content, with a rather repetitive style. While the lyrics are great in this track, personally, it's not my favourite song on the album at all. "My Pledge" is another strange tune with the album's trademark acoustic folk-rock sound mixed with an almost Lou Reed-esque spoken word verse overlaid by Neil Young's auto-tuned vocal melodies. While the auto-tune worked better on the album's title track, here, it just sounds really weird and out of place with the otherwise raw production. "Glass Accident" sees the reintroduction of the fuzzy electric guitar seen in the title track, and a strangely uneffected harmonica solo. Closing track "My New Robot" starts off as probably the most traditionally "folk" song on the album since it features no distortion on the harmonica, which invades nearly every other song on the album, until the weird robotic dialogue in the second half.
Lyrics — 8
While it's not a concept album along the lines of "The Monsanto Years," there is still a sort of pervasive theme with the lyrics on this record of an urge to protect the environment (pretty much most of the album, but especially tracks like "John Oaks" and "Glass Accident"), to show solidarity with those who are affected by the North Dakota oil pipeline expansion ("Indian Givers"), and a weird kind of idea of futurism ("My New Robot"), and in the title track of the album, the first verses almost seem a bit like a mission statement for Neil Young in 2016:
"Ain't taken my last hit yet
I know that things are different now
(I see the same old signs, but something new is growing)
Don't think I'll cash it in yet
Don't think I'll put down my last bet
(I'm gonna keep my hand in, because something new is growing)"
Neil's voice is definitely starting to show its age, especially considering how vulnerable and imperfect it was to begin with, all the way back in the '60s and '70s, but in keeping with the sonic theme of the album, the raw and imperfect style of vocal suits this record just perfectly. The only issue I take, as mentioned in the last section, is the use of a vocoder or auto-tune effect in the title track and "My Pledge". While the use of it on the title track is very sparingly done, "My Pledge" almost takes it to comic levels, with nearly every line of the melodic vocals (while Neil does his Lou Reed-ish thing underneath it) sounding like it could be a guest appearance from T-Pain. The auto-tune fad seemed to die a long time ago, so it isn't really funny on this track, and it fits in with the style of music so poorly. Luckily, it's only on this one song, and it's not even really a bad song, all things considered.
Overall Impression — 7
Neil Young has had an incredibly long and storied career, releasing so many albums on his own, as a bandleader for Crazy Horse, and as a member of the bands Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Buffalo Springfield, that it's honestly quite impressive that Neil is still putting out rather decent quality music after all of these years, and still managing to make his music and lyrics sound relevant. Even though the acoustic-folk-rock sound on this album does have a hint of "bitter old fogey" written all over it, there's a certain honesty to the production of the album as a whole, the whole idea of most of the songs sounding like they were first or second takes cut live off the floor, that one can forgive the album's few transgressions in favour of what it's done right. And when this album isn't trying to juxtapose auto-tuned vocals with folk-rock or going with very repetitive musical passages, it's a wonderful listen. For the most part, this album proves that Neil Young's still got quite a bit going for him this far into his career, and like his lyrics in the album's title track, hints that he's far from done yet.