On Peace Trail, Neil Young forsakes his recent penchant for pointed social commentary in favor of a disarmingly offhanded approach that’s much more effective. Over the course of ten no nonsense tracks, the Canadian musical icon shines a light on our cultural dislocation without making statements or declaring his opinion in any overt way.
In fact, it’s fascinating to hear how Young switches perspective from song to song, illuminating various fragments of our dislocated culture in doing so. Within the seemingly glib sloganeering of “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders,” he adopts the voice of a fictional character to contrast his own pondering on open borders and immigration. Immediately following, the portrait he paints of “John Oaks” gains as much impact from the track sequencing as the story-line itself, a description of an accidental shooting where the raw instrumental sound matches the emotional content.
In a direct reflection of its stark cover art, the loose simplicity of Young’s playing here, mainly backed by two other musicians (drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Paul Bushnell), imparts continuity to the record. A deceptively prosaic, self-referential piece called “Can’t Stop Workin’” echoes the prevailing acoustic foundation of this album, which is also prominent on “My Pledge,” where the use of counterpoint vocal tracks makes the sound effects on “My New Robot,” seem even more contrived. Yet the abrupt ending of that lighthearted contemplation on technology, combined with its placement as the closing cut, prompt reflection on what’s preceded.
A whole much greater than the sum of its parts, Peace Trail recalls previous albums of Young’s like American Stars and Bars or Hawks & Doves, where gems of songwriting skill reside next to apparent throwaways. As such, this appropriately-designated title song may be the only truly great tune here: it’s certainly far superior to “Indian Givers,” which, in its plain-spoken verse, sounds bereft of the poetry that distinguishes Young’s best work. While “Show Me” sounds like it has more to do with media perceptions than its apparent topic–the Dakota pipeline controversy. Meanwhile, in “Texas Rangers,” the author offers thought-provoking observations on the ‘news.’
In the seven studio albums he’s released since 2010, Neil Young has certainly proven that being prolific doesn’t necessarily translate directly to truly inspired work. Peace Trail, however, is worthy of late entry in 2016’s ‘Best Of’ lists.