Neil Young Ages Well on “Fork in the Road”
Neil Young has never been a perfect stranger to the world of concept albums. Nor has his songwriting avoided controversial political messages in order to find commercial success (see 2006’s “Living with War”). The rock legend’s latest release, “Fork in the Road,” is both a concept album and a collection of songs defined by a progressive political message. At least, that was the plan.
The songs in “Fork in the Road” pay homage to the electric car, specifically Young’s hybrid Lincoln Continental. The car itself is something of an anachronism, a 50-year-old automobile revving along with the engine of tomorrow. For its part, “Fork in the Road” could be seen as a hybrid of several earlier Young albums — the high-tech concept behind “Trans” fused with the garage-rock sound of “Zuma,” perhaps.
With song titles like “Fuel Line,” “Get Behind the Wheel” and “Hit the Road,” you already know what you’re getting into. Yes, every song revolves around cars, electricity or roads — both actual and figurative. But despite being fraught with automotive imagery, some songs on “Fork in the Road” transcend the limitations of an electric car concept album. At moments, softer songs like “Off the Road” and “Light a Candle” showcase the careful songwriting and pleading voice that earned Young his high place in rock history.
Even with its overt political censure, a song like “Cough Up the Bucks” sounds at once experimental and classic in the hands of Neil Young. “Just Singing a Song” offers the best elements of Young’s music, but with a contemporary message: “Just singing a song won’t change the world / You can sing about change / While you’re making your own.”
Yet, despite his faith in the electric car, Young’s relationship with technology is somewhat complicated. He may have prefigured electronica with a concept album like “Trans,” but he’s considerably more skeptical about music as a digital medium. In the title track of “Fork in the Road,” Young mumbles, “Download this / Sounds like shit,” and then, a little later, “On the radio / Those were the days / Bring ’em back.”
You can listen to the entire album on Neil Young’s MySpace but he’d probably try to talk you out of doing so; he might even grimace if you download “Fork in the Road” on iTunes. Presuming you can cough up the bucks, so to speak, you can buy the album on vinyl for about four times the cost of an iTunes album. That is, if the clash of old-meets-new-meets-old hasn’t already driven you crazy.