I've only just recently listened to Neil Young's Living With War, even though it came out months ago, and even though from what I could tell from reviews I was sure I would agree with its expressed outrage about the invasion of Iraq and the Bush administration more generally. Regular readers of this blog can probably guess why, since I've made my impatience with politicized art pretty clear. I admire Neil Young's body of work probably more than any other in the history of rock and roll (or at least I respond to it most readily), and although I'm willing to allow him an occasional polemical outburst (especially under the current circumstances), I assumed I would find this album fairly dispensable.
But I've actually been playing the thing over and over. Musically it's somewhere between Young's folky and his rocking modes (around the two of which he tends to oscillate). "After the Garden" and "Living With War" seem to me essentially folk-style protest songs revved up by Young's loud and impassioned electic guitar, while "Shock and Awe" and "The Restless Consumer" are hard-rocking shout-outs. Most of the tunes likewise seem pretty familiar variations on both his folk- and rock-derived song structures, which in this case only makes the songs seem more immediate, and ultimately the power trio format(fleshed out by an occasional trumpet and a choir) creates the kind of stripped-down sound that reinforces the urgency of the music.
Lyrically, the songs are equally simple, sometimes almost embarrasingly ingenuous when recited as verse: "Let's impeach the President for lying/and misleading our country into war,/abusing all the power that we gave him/ and shipping all our money out the door." But of course it's not verse, it's rhymed anger, and again the plain talk only reinforces the sense of urgency the album conveys, its high-decibel sincerity. It's reported that Young and company recorded the album in just a few days, some of the songs being written on the spot, and while the result does indeed seem rather loose-jointed, its unrehearsed quality is finally its greatest strength.
Perhaps this is the way to make "political art." Forget the art and scream, albeit with enough modulation in your voice to make the sound arresting. Admit you're not using the medium for artistic purposes at all, but to vent your rage and dissent and to provide a momentary opportunity for your audience to do the same. This is surely not an unworthy activity, although I don't see why it needs to be artificially elevated in importance by hailing it as a great aesthetic accomplishment.
Which is not to say that Living With War is all clamorous if rousing bombast. "Flags of Freedom" is almost subtle in its effect--if you weren't hearing it in the context of the rest of the album, you could almost take its description of the day "our younger son is going off to war" as a tribute to American soldiers and their martial spirit. And it is, as well as a paean to small-town values, except that the senseless mission on which the soldiers are being sent is ominously suggested in the song's images and its reference to the Bob Dylan song "in 1963" ("Chimes of Freedom"). "Flags of Freedom," as well as "Families," leavens the protest with honest observation of duty and sacrifice. Ultimately, these touches make the record somewhat less than (or more than) mere polemics.
(To appreciate its virtues, it is necessary to listen to the album as a whole straight through. Sampling individual songs precisely does deprive them of the context that allows them to transcend the limitations of the "protest song" and reduces them to artless complaining.)
I don't think that years from now I'll still be listening to Living With War in the same way I'm still listening to Everybody Knows This is Nowhere or Tonight's the Night. I agree with John Kenyon that it probably won't "age well," although he seems to have lost enthusiasm for it more quickly than I have. For now, it has helped to channel my own fury at the current state of the world, which is not nothing.