“Ain’t taken my last hit yet / I know that things are different now,” Neil Young sings on “Peace Trail,” the title track of his 37th album, as a robot version of his own voice comes in behind him. “I see the same old signs,” Robot Neil adds, “but something new is growing.” Peace Trail is a shaggy, warm album that foregrounds empathy above all. It has a feeling of presentness, in part because of its several songs about the Dakota Access Pipeline protests: Young recently spent his 71st birthday at Standing Rock, playing for the water protectors. He recorded Peace Trail over four days earlier this year, working solo with session pros Paul Bushnell on bass and Jim Keltner on drums instead of calling in his current backing band. The album’s other big theme is the importance of clocking in every day, of always moving forward in whatever way one can.
Young’s inability to remain still has always been one of his greatest assets. In the 1980s, when his boomer musical peers were making high-gloss, expensive-sounding studio records, he was otherwise occupied. His vocoder-heavy, Kraftwerk-inspired 1982 album Trans baffled many folk-rock fans at the time but became an experimental classic. He then immediately made a rockabilly album, Everybody’s Rockin’. Young refused to pick a lane, because he never wanted to get stuck in time. In the mid-’80s, label head David Geffen sued Young for $3.3 million for making records that were, Geffen said, purposely not commercial — records that didn’t sound like what customers expected Neil Young to sound like. But this has always been the point of Neil Young. There is no one Neil Young sound; he is manifold.
In his ability to continually move forward, Young resembles David Bowie. He is not threatened by newness, so he never goes out of date or becomes retro. He recognizes life as a process of continual change and present moments. Peace Trail floats in the now. It feels distinctly of its time, buoyed by flashes of Young’s experimentalism. There is subtle vocoder on some of the songs that ties this album to folk son Bon Iver’s Trans-channeling 2016 album, 22, A Million. There are harmonica solos pushed to the brink of distortion, and lyrics that turn into meditative chants.
Young is a Canadian who has taken on America as a concept throughout his career. On Peace Trail he continues his tradition of songs like “Pocahontas” and “Cortez the Killer,” siding with the indigenous peoples who occupied this country long before European colonizers came bearing genocide. Young is not always exactly PC — one song here is called “Indian Givers” as a play on the racist American phrase — but his heart’s in the right place. On “Indian Givers,” he takes the U.S.’s corporate monopolies to task, pointing out that Europeans are the ones who have traditionally made promises to Native Americans that they never really intended to honor, who gave them smallpox in blankets and forced them into reservations, and are now trying to route a toxic oil pipeline through a sacred burial site on one of those small parcels of land. “There’s a battle raging on the sacred land,” Young sings. “Our brothers and sisters had to take a stand.” The chorus sounds like folk blues, with Young repeating, “I wish somebody would share the news” as he recounts the story of protesters like Dale “Happy” American Horse Jr., who chained himself to a piece of industrial machinery this summer. Young is neither overly optimistic nor fatalistic, even as he sings a depressing truism like “Behind big money, justice always fails.”
Elsewhere, the album rambles through political parables with broader meanings. “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders” is an absurdist critique of how the powerful stoke fear in the ignorant through chaos, in the tradition of Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles” and The Cramps’ “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns.” “John Oaks” is about a farmer who trusts the police until he realizes what they’re really up to after witnessing a disturbing scene: “Shots rang out and people yelled as the police took control / Shot a black man right where he fell with a sniper on the knoll.” At this point, Young’s everyman realizes that “law and order [are] leading him astray” and sees that cops are not the worker’s friends, nor are politicians.
The album gets more abstract at the end, and points toward Young’s humble and unpretentious avant-garde underpinnings. “Glass Accident” features the incredible poetic opening, “Woke up this morning to a glass accident / Glass fell in love with the floor,” and remains pleasurably opaque throughout. Album closer “My New Robot” is hilarious — a love song that starts with “It’s a lonely cup of coffee ’cause my baby’s gone,” and then satirizes capitalism’s solution to his loneliness: “My life has been so lucky / The package has arrived / I got my new robot from amazon.com / Unpacking it now, I have a sense of pride / I’m going online to program it for you!” But his voice is drowned out by more robots, chiming in with their strange attempts to mimic human speech.
For most of its running time, though, Peace Trail is set on deconstructing American patriotism in Young’s underdog-supporting way. “Texas Rangers” is a damning indictment of cops, including Texas rangers, and the media: “Watch what you don’t see on the TV when they hide the truth.” Young then references the stream of videos from the past few years of cops killing innocent black and brown Americans. “Texas Rangers” seems to specifically refer to the death of Sandra Bland, who was pulled over in Texas by a state trooper, disputed her arrest, and was later found dead in her jail cell under shady circumstances. In his seventies, Young is as focused as ever on trying to “share the news” of the injustices being committed by the strong against the weak, the rich against the poor, the unjustly powerful against the unjustly disempowered — the story of what’s happening in America this year, and every year since the country’s start.