In the Spring of 2006, Neil Young released his 28th studio album, Living With War, which is around the same time that things in my life were in an upheaval. To put it in context, we had just moved to Stouffville a couple of months earlier. Within three days of moving, my husband learned that he was going to be laid off, and that he needed to find another job. We had just doubled our mortgage and were now living in a raised bungalow with great bones, but with an interior reminiscent of a Debbie Travis’ Painted House nightmare. We would have to hold off on renos as we were maxed out financially. I was working too, but my husband’s job carried the mortgage. There was a lot of uncertainty and constant butterflies during that time. So when the hubs popped Living With War into the car stereo one day that spring, I couldn’t help but say, “testify, Neil!”
We eventually moved past the uncertainty. Today we are still living in our home in Stouffville. And I am happy to report the interior has less brass and even less faux paint treatments. We’re both employed. We’re doing fine.
Neil always comes in at the right time though, doesn’t he? He is one of these great dudes that speaks to me on higher level. His soaring guitar stylings, that harmonica that sounds like wind through a field of tall grass. And I happen to love his craggy voice, for what it’s worth. It is especially appropriate on this album – an album full of power protest rock.
Some people might read that last sentence and think, “What the heck is he protesting NOW?” George W was at the White House helm, and not to get too political, but many people criticized him for his policies concerning Iraq and Afghanistan. Neil, for one, was upset about the whole thing, and when he gets upset, he starts writing. From what I’ve read, the songs on this album were written pretty quickly, and recording the album only took nine days. The album itself does show an unpolished rawness in its quality which is par for the course when we are talking about Neil. But, the music is not sloppy. Never sloppy. It’s made even more moving by adding a 100-voice choir to it.
Every song on Living With War is a testament to his political displeasure, starting with the first song, After the Garden. A hundred-pound rocker that talks about how war destroys, and what then? Some heavy lyrics to match, combined with the choir, and it provides one heck of an opener:
“Won’t need no shadow man running the government
Won’t need no stinkin’ war
Won’t need no hair cut, won’t need no shoe shine
After the garden is gone…”
The second track, Living With War is the crowning achievement of this album. The song begins with a trumpet call that is answered by those beautiful voices. The band’s music itself is understated. You pay no mind to it actually, you just hear that chorus sing about the turmoil in the Middle East. And then halfway through they sing an excerpt from the Star-Spangled Banner that even as a Canadian, brings tears to my eyes. Some powerful lyrics to match too.
“And when the dawn breaks, I see my fellow man
And on the flat screen we kill and we kill again
And when night falls, I pray for peace
Try to remember peace…”
The third track, the Restless Consumer, is Neil’s opportunity to do a little rapping of sorts. This track, in my opinion, is the weakest song on the album, simply because it seems a little rushed or last minute. For one thing, Neil tries to sing the chorus of the song way above his regular register, then tries to save it by tuning down mid-way through, and it doesn’t sound good. The rap part where he yells, “Don’t need NO MORE LIES!!” is pretty cool, though.
Shock and Awe, the fourth track showcases more of the band’s musical prowress. Neil’s fuzzy guitar and Tommy Bray’s trumpet lead the pack as Neil and the choir sing about George W’s “Mission Accomplished” and how it’s too late to go back from going to war; the damage is done.
The fifth track, Families, must be my second favourite song on the album. Just a gorgeous Neil song – strong guitar, and simple lyrics about a soldier returning home from war. At 2:20, this is a short, simple and sweet tune.
On the opposite end from track five, Flags of Freedom, the sixth song, tells of families seeing their loved ones go off to war. A somewhat upbeat song, if you don’t listen to the heartbreaking lyrics.
Let’s Impeach the President is about what you think it is. Neil puts his feelings about Bush and his flip-flopping out there and Neil doesn’t mince words. He even uses George W sound bites to bring his point home.
“Let’s impeach the president for hijacking our religion and using it to get elected…”
And this hilarious one: “Thank God he’s crackin’ down on steroids since he sold his old baseball team!”
Lookin’ For a Leader is the next song on the album that basically calls out for a new leader to bring America back to square and to “fight corruption”. He even names Obama, Hilary Clinton and Colin Powell as potential future presidents. Again, a simple, understated song with very strong opinions webbed into the lyrics.
Roger and Out is a nice slow dance that is about someone who lost their buddy in the war. A nice commemoration.
And finally, the chorus rounds out the end of this album with an absolutely powerful rendition of America the Beautiful – acapella.
Overall, Living With War is a great rock protest album that doesn’t disappoint. It was definitely there for me when my husband and I were experiencing a bit of a rough patch. Today we can look back and listen to this album without reliving the nightmare. I recommend you take this one for a spin if you haven’t already. Fans of Neil will definitely enjoy.
Living With War