I don’t know what’s going on with the mixed reviews for the new Neil Young disc, Fork in the Road. I bought it without any particular high expectations, and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it ever since. Big loud guitars, big loud beats, big loud tunes. I haven’t taken to one of Neil’s records this quickly since Mirror Ball.
Part of the reason is the backup band. Decades of listening to Neil Young records have trained me to expect that when the grating, rumbling tone of Old Black comes through the speakers, it will be accompanied by the lumbering drums of Ralph Molina. So it’s a pleasure and a surprise to hear Chad Cromwell, who can actually drive the beat instead of stagger along beside it, Molina style.
Another part of the reason is that Fork in the Road, bum notes and all, showcases some of Neil’s best guitar playing in years. There are no lengthy solos, just short, terse accents and breaks that probably won’t turn up as tabs in Guitar Player, but which give the record the feel of a garage-band workout that’s forever on the verge of breaking into something grander and more inspired.
Yeah, one of the songs is about Neil’s electric car. Many of the songs are about cars or travel in various vehicles. You can deal with it. Aside from sex, I doubt there’s a more appropriate rock and roll subject than cars and driving. This disc is going to be great leadfooting music for drives to the beach. It’s that kind of fun.
It’s also kind of pissed off, as in “There’s a bailout coming, but it’s not for me/ It’s for all those creeps watching tickers on TV . . . There’s a bailout coming but it’s not for you/ It’s for all those creeps hiding what they do.” Some of the reviewers have referred to the songs as “cranky.” They’re not cranky, they’re angry. Big difference. Especially when there’s so much to be angry about. “Keep on blogging ’til the power goes out,” Neil sings on the title track. Is Neil Young a blogging rocker or a rocking blogger? I’m happy with it either way.
And the songs aren’t all angry. Toward the end of all this clamor, Neil drops in “Light a Candle,” a folk melody that’s going to be a staple of coffeehouses for years to come. And throughout the disc, there’s a good leavening of rueful humor:
I’m a big rock star.
My sales have tanked,
But I still got you.
Right now I’m thinking of Fork in the Road as a solid second-tier Neil disc, like Ragged Glory or Freedom, but it wouldn’t surprise me if by this time next year it’s crept into the upper ranks. Neil Young records have a way of doing that.