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This column is in disgrace. Last month, with both the deadline and a flight to New York looming, I found myself in the position of the rabbit staring at the headlights of the oncoming lorry. Completely frozen, unable to think, unable to write. I’d been listening to loads of music all month but couldn’t find a word to say about any of it. So I found myself writing about the dead pets of my childhood, filed the copy and caught the plane before anyone could track me down to ask for a rewrite.
My wife gave it a glance just before the taxi arrived to whisk me away. ‘If you were writing a column called “My family and other animals” it would be just the ticket,’ she said. ‘As a column about music it’s an absolute joke.’ My mum wasn’t best pleased about being outed as a serial pet-killer either, but with the resignation of old age she graciously forgave me. ‘I suppose you’ve got to write about something,’ she said. Liz, the saintly arts editor, was made of sterner stuff. I received a brief note from her. ‘Olden but golden…music?? Humph!’ she wrote, to which the only possible reply was: ‘It’s a fair cop, guv.’
So this week I’d better cut to the music, fast, before this column gets its quietus, and in particular to Neil Young, whose music has been a presence and a consolation in my life ever since I first heard his wonderful album, After the Gold Rush, at school in 1970. Back then I particularly loved the combination of his girlie voice and his fuzzily distorted lead guitar, heard to best effect, perhaps, on the earlier LP Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), with its thrilling ten-minute axe work-outs ‘Down by the River’ and ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’.
Young was later hailed as the godfather of grunge, but he is equally fine at gentle acoustic music, too, with a rare and simple honesty about his lyrics that is often deeply affecting. But he’s 60 now, and though he keeps on trucking, just like an old hippie should, I’d assumed his glory days were far behind him, especially as he was gravely ill a year or so ago.
His new album, Living with War, how-ever, sees a truly astonishing return to form. It is as if the music has been forcibly ripped from his heart and his soul, so furious is Young with President Bush and what’s happening in Iraq.
Once again the amps are turned up to 11, and his guitar roars and groans and cries and sings and buzzes and burps. And though his voice is now ragged, and the high notes are sometimes beyond him, there is no mistaking his passion or his indignation. The record was written and recorded in just six days, in a frenzy of creativity, with a power trio of guitar, bass and drums, a plangent, wonderfully eloquent trumpet and a 100-strong choir, which offers a climactic, deeply moving version of ‘America the Beautiful’.
The phrase ‘ragged glory’, the title of another of Young’s albums, comes to mind with this one. There is nothing slick here, and not everything works, but the strength of the emotion, and the singer’s compassion for the dead and the bereaved, is overwhelming.
Nor do you necessarily have to agree with Young to find his album affecting and stirring. I was pretty hawkish about the invasion. It’s the mendacity, malign incompetence and lack of forward planning that have been revealed since that I can’t stomach. Inevitably, the record has created much controversy in America, not least because Young, though a long-term resident in the US, remains a Canadian citizen, and here offers a stirring number called ‘Let’s Impeach the President’ with a catalogue of pithily expressed indictments against him.
The song ‘Shock and Awe’ is equally fine, as epic and exciting as anything he has written since ‘Zuma’, but drenched in rage and pity as he contemptuously quotes Bush’s comment about ‘mission accomplished’ before grieving for the widows and the children scarred for life.
This is the kind of album — too rare these days — that restores one’s faith in the power of rock music. Young says he held back for a while, thinking the protest ought to come from a younger talent before realising that no one else was stepping up for the task and that he would have to do it himself. He has done a magnificent job.
Charles Spencer is theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph.