Neil Young & Promise of The Real - The Visitor

by Kevin Orton Rating:5 Release Date:2017-12-01
Neil Young & Promise of The Real - The Visitor
Neil Young & Promise of The Real - The Visitor

Neil Young has always been a restlessly impulsive artist. Nor is he inclined to rest on his laurels. He never looks back. Before the dust can settle, he moves on. One can say he’s mercurial. One can say he’s inconsistent. One can say he’s frustrating as hell. But one can’t say he isn’t prolific. Over the last 30 years however, I can count the Neil Young albums I routinely come back to on one hand: Comes A Time, Rust Never Sleeps, Harvest Moon, Sleeps With Angels and last year’s Peace Trail. That’s not to say the rest don’t have their moments but as whole albums, they’re often a letdown or simply half-baked.

Suffice it to say, like a lot of people, I approach each new Young release with real trepidation. My issue isn’t the music. It’s the lyrics. With the release of this year’s Hitchhiker, I’m reminded at what a skilled lyricist Young can be. Take a listen to the Hitchhiker version of, ‘Powderfinger’. You have a defiantly anti-war message, wrapped in a compelling, ambiguous tale. That ambiguity goes a long way. In fact, it can make or break a song. It’s that inarticulate something that not only reels the listener in but keeps them coming back. Over the years, Young seems to have lost this knack. As he’s aged, he’s often just blurted out whatever’s on his mind in the most unimaginative way possible. It’s almost like he’s trying to out Morrissey Morrissey. Couple that with Ryan Adams’ “every fleeting thought is a pearl” work ethic and it’s no small wonder Young fans aren’t exactly pining for another, Monsanto Years. I’m fine with someone preaching to the choir, and I appreciate Young’s activism. But let’s face it, in the lyrical department, Neil Young can sometimes be just plain lazy. Sorry Neil, but stating the obvious isn’t always all that captivating, let alone thought provoking.

Last year’s, Peace Trail had a fair share of activism, but rarely erred on the side of sloganeering. Any politics were mixed with the personal. Case in point, ‘Glass Accident’. Not so here. What makes The Visitor so damn maddening is that for the most part, musically, it’s Young’s most engaging in years. If only the lyrics rose to the occasion.

Things kick off with ‘Already Great’ a number that’s bound to get your blood pumping. One almost thinks he’s gotten Crazy Horse back together.  And while, ‘Fly By Night’ finds him assuming the role of a demented auctioneer, lyrically, things fall on their ass. That said, ‘Almost Always’ is a standout, despite a riff not so faintly reminiscent of ‘Winterlong’.

By far, ‘Carnival’ is The Visitor’ s most ambitious and beguiling track. Lyrically, it’s a circus song. Musically, it’s a cross between a Morricone Spaghetti Western and a Marty Robbins Cowboy ballad. Add in, an odd dash of Sgt. Pepper’s and it’s one of the most eccentric tracks Young has cut in quite a spell. Taking a risk, just like those daring young men on the flying trapeze he’s singing about. Vocally, Young cackles and sings with the moustache twirling relish of a Max Sennett villain. He’s never recorded anything quite like it. All the better, because it’s so wonderfully tongue in cheek.

‘Stand Tall’ is Young at his most Funk but lyrically it’s another in a long list of yawns. Since when has the world ever been saved by self-righteousness? Elsewhere, ‘Change of Heart’ does just that. A gorgeous tune that manages to transcend the message. “There on the church steps, I was nine or ten” and then the chorus, “I had a change of heart.” At this point you’ll notice most of the choruses in these songs sound like they were recorded in a high school auditorium with a hastily assembled choir of concerned citizens. And no doubt, it’s intentional.

When ‘Diggin’ A Hole’ kicks in, it’s hard not to be reminded of ‘Speakin’ Out’ off Tonight’s the Night. But sadly, it isn’t much of a song. It’s lack of ambition is offset by ‘Children of Destiny’. Musically, yearning strings are knocked about by clanging guitars and horns and a chorus that mockingly veers toward jingoistic propaganda. The lyrics however verge on Sesame Street simplicity. Neil’s vocals bringing The Muppets to mind.

‘When Bad Got Good’ finds Neil growling, “lock ‘em up” like Michael Flynn. It’s driving, dirty groove set to a chain gang call and response. But any attempt at being an actual song sputters out before it even gets going. It’s the kind of half assed, tossed off thing that just pulls the rug out from under any agenda.

“Earth is like a church without a preacher, the people have to pray for themselves” Young sermonizes on, ‘Forever’. An insightful sentiment to say the least, but not the kind of thing that’s likely to have you running back for more.   

In the end, despite some intriguing moments, The Visitor is destined to come and go with a shrug. Store this one up in the attic alongside Living With War and The Monsanto Years. Which is a shame, because one can see the seeds of something great here if Young bothered to pull a few weeds and water the tomatoes. In terms of the lyrics, Lennon exercised a little imagination to write, ‘Imagine’. Would it hurt you to do the same, Neil? We all know you have it in you.

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