Neil Young’s Broadside – A Review of “Living With War”

Neil Young’s “Living With War” is a ferocious, unsparing work – a musical fever dream moving relentlessly through post-9/11 America.   From the slashing chords and kick-drum launch of  “After the Garden,” and throughout the record’s 10 tracks, its bristling sonic fury never ebbs. 

“The guitar was playing itself,” Young told Rolling Stone magazine last week.

“Living With War” could be the record of the year, not just for its artistry, which is abundant, but also for the manner in which the album was conceived, created and delivered.

Fitting, then, that its’ arrival coincides so closely with today’s anniversary of the shooting deaths of four students at Kent State.  In response to that tragedy, Mr. Young penned “Ohio,” and with Crosby, Stills Nash & Young, rehearsed, recorded and released the song in a matter of hours.

The record was pressed and in the hands of radio programmers within days.  “It was the fastest I’ve ever seen a record company work,” said the session’s engineer, Bill Halverson.

In 1970, the cover of Life Magazine brought Kent State home to Neil Young; in 2006, a USA Today story lauding medical advances brought about by the necessity of treating so many Iraq war wounded “caught me off guard,” says Young, “and I went upstairs and wrote ‘Families’ for one of those soldiers who didn't get to come home. Then I cried in my wife's arms. That was the turning point for me.”

Not content to let a single song represent his anti-war stance, Young wrote an entire album.  With the rough mixes in hand, he recruited 100 backup singers and a horn section to add some softer elements to the finished product.  As he worked on the record, Young posted lyrics to most of the songs on his web site, words that crawled slowly across the screen, news ticker style – forcing readers to linger on every stanza.

It was a move reminiscent of “Broadside,” the Greenwich Village folk music magazine launched in 1962.    Lyrics by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds and others were published there before the recordings became available, sometimes even before they were made.  Topical songs about the concerns of the day – nuclear war, civil rights, rigid conformity – that lit the path for a generation of songwriters who followed.

Last Friday, the completed “Living With War” began streaming from several Internet sites.  Any fan hoping to skip directly to the much-discussed “Let’s Impeach The President” was disappointed, though.  The album played in its entirety, track by track.  Ingenious, really, in an era where the long-playing record is a dying art form, and an effective gambit, as well.  The shock value of 100 blue chip backup singers chanting “flip/flop” over recorded samples of contradictory Bush statements is more powerful in the context of the six songs that precede it.  The record’s final number, a faithful rendition of “America the Beautiful” sung by that same choir, is a fitting coda.  It’s also a forceful reminder that “Living With War” deserves to be heard all the way through.

Tuesday, the record finally became available for purchase, but only as a digital download from sites like iTunes, Napster and Rhapsody.  In an industry where physical media is still king, it’s the first time an artist of Young’s stature has released an entire album this way.  The CD will arrive in stores next week, but in a sort of pre-emptive strike, his web site has announced that production issues will delay discs containing a bonus track.  In other words, fans – wait!  There will eventually be a DVD with rough mixes, extras and videos of the marathon session, according to reports.

If everything that’s happened up to this point is any indication, that content will also be leaked online.

When “Ohio” came out in 1970, most AM stations of the day refused to play it.  This near-total ban became a catalyst for the underground FM stations of the time, like Boston’s WBCN and KMPX in San Francisco, and they helped catapult the record into the Top 50.  It launched a free-form experiment that endured for over 25 years, until corporate consolidation and the commoditization of rock music eventually killed it.

Today’s mass-market radio won’t likely touch “Living With War,” not when a more palatable substitute like “Rockin’ In The Free World” makes the same point – sort of – much less offensively.

In choosing to first make the record available free online, and then aggressively market it as digital content, Neil Young is once again at the vanguard of change.  Hard to believe that just a few months ago, he was nursing the after effects of brain surgery and pondering retirement.  As his new record makes waves throughout the musical world, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are again reunited and set to travel the country playing live, with a show fittingly entitled the “Freedom of Speech Tour.”

By Michael Witthaus

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