Reviewed by Harry Kaplan
I am going to call 2016 the year of back to basics in music. So many established artists released albums this year that were quite stripped down and without a lot of instrumentation. Artists like Lucinda Williams, Leonard Cohen, Cheap Trick (yes Cheap Trick), and even The Rolling Stones scaled back on their sound. Add Neil Young to that list.
Peace Trail, Neil Young’s 37th studio album sounds more akin to his early 70’s releases than his music today. Frankly, I really haven’t paid much attention to Neil Young’s releases after 1979 until now. Peace Trail is mind blowing. If you are someone that likes a lot of production gimmicks and knob twisting, you probably won’t enjoy this. However, if you are a fan of After The Gold Rush and Harvest, you will adore this.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine from Allmusic, in a review stated, “Peace Trail is filled with songs about its precise moment in time, but the execution is so artless it veers toward indifference.” I could not disagree more. This album shows restraint and discipline and really focuses on the important element, the music.
There is probably no coincidence that this was recorded at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studios. It reminds me of American Recordings by Johnny Cash where Rubin recorded and produced Cash with mainly an acoustic guitar and it completely revitalized his career. While the circumstances are not the same for Young, the end result is. Music that goes back to the artist’ roots. It is anything but artless, it is filled with aggression and energy and conviction. You don’t have to use autotune to prove something has artistic merit.
There is a little bit of autotune in the song My Pledge (Track 8). It is used sparingly and only as an accent. And it is Neil Young, so he gets a pass. The song is amazing. Neil mostly talks the lines, similar in style to the later Townes Van Zandt songs. It is every bit as powerful.
Can’t Stop Working (Track 2) is one of Young’s best songs, bar none. It has some great distorted harmonica parts in it. How often can you say distorted harmonica? So even though this song and album is mainly acoustic, Young still finds the right moments to insert some feedback and noise. I take comfort in that.
Neil is still very much into his causes and there is a song on Peace Trail about the Dakota Access Pipeline. Indian Givers (Track 3) is a very strong song about the struggles of the Native Americans with the Dakota Pipeline. There is some good distorted harmonica on this tune as well. But more importantly, Neil tells the story so well and make you want to jump to action.
I am so encouraged by this album. Neil Young still has in him the ability to make an amazing, pertinent album. I can’t wait to listen to this one again, and again, and again. Thank you Neil!