On initial hearings, Neil Young’s latest album with Promise of the Real, The Visitor, doesn’t appear to have the provocative unity of his previous record, Peace Trail, released in December of 2016. But that’s because the variety of styles on display over the course of ten tracks partially camouflages what the iconic musician/songwriter is trying to say.
Of a piece with Neil’s other recent new releases like Storytone and The Monsanto Years (and even Special Deluxe, the second and superior of his autobiographical books), the stylized cover art also belies the musical diversity of the record. On one end of the spectrum, the fuzz-drenched honky-tonk of “Already Great,” set an implicit tone, topical and musical, later reiterated with the grand orchestration cum marching band opus of “Children of Destiny. ”
The former is clearly a direct response to a theme from last year’s presidential campaign, while the latter echoes in tribute to the so-called ‘dreamers’ who, like the Canadian who wrote the song, have made a home in the United States. The subdued tone of “Almost Always,” is something of a contrast, at least instrumentally, with acoustic guitar accented by doleful harmonica accompanying a laconic vocal delivery, focusing attention on the barbed lyrics about “And I’m livin’ with a game show host who has to brag and has to boast ’bout tearin’ down the things that I hold dear.”
An off-the-cuff blues called “Diggin’ A Hole,” is representative of the obvious chemistry Young’s nurtured with Lukas Nelson and company, but the ensemble sounds borderline sloppy on this track, rather than delightfully casual. “When Bad Got Good” also radiates a similarly off-the-cuff air, as if it was recorded as it was written (or vice-versa?). And, like the 2016 live album Earth, “Stand Tall” contains superfluous sound effects which only telegraph its intent, rendering the track a contrivance despite the song’s laudable sentiment.
On “Fly by Night” however, the musicianship matches serious expression of environmental and personal concerns and it helps that the former Buffalo Springfielder and comrade of Crosby, Stills and Nash eschews sloganeering. Likewise, “Forever” is stream-of-consciousness that works, in part because of an ever-so-slight element of whimsy; it’s appropriately sequenced as the final track and stands as one more example of how Neil Young can still capture ‘lightning in a bottle (albeit not quite in the same potent, sustained fashion as on Hitchhiker, the archive title released earlier this year).
Those comparisons aside, it’s still not reasonable to designate The Visitor as a latter-day Neil Young classic comparable to the artistic resurgence represented by Ragged Glory or Freedom. More likely this is the latest entry in a recently-released body of work comparable to the so-called ‘Ditch Trilogy’ (Time Fades Away, Tonight’s The Night, On The Beach), titles of somewhat dubious meaning or impact upon original release that with the passage of time manifest real significance.