‘The Times‘ is the latest mini-album from Neil Young, comprising of six of Young’s songs and a version of Dylan’s ‘The Times they are a-changin’‘. The recordings are of the most stripped-down possible – it’s Neil on acoustic guitar and harmonica, recorded at home on an Ipad. There’s all sorts of irony in that artistic statement – Young’s “better than mp3s” Pono system was a bust, and Young of course has access to home studios if he wants: this is the man who in the past had a house and barn which “had a blend“. This is then a deliberate act for the lo-fi, akin to the ‘A Letter Home‘, but this time it is himself that he’s revisiting and this is less about favourite old songs and more about making a pre-presidential election broadcast. There is, like ‘A Letter Home‘, something endearing about this approach – where that album celebrated the technology of the “Record-A-Disc” machine, this one recreates the feel of the bootleg made on a cheap tape recorder smuggled into a gig, but with the bonus of no audience noise.
Neil sounds energised on the opener ‘Alabama‘, a song that has no right to still carry relevance. References to banjos heard through broken windows as a musical backdrop to a resurgent Ku-Klux-Klan should by rights be an unbelievable relic of a history that’s hard to comprehend. Neil Young’s acknowledgement that his nation (the Canadian became also a citizen of the USA in January this year) has a resurgent right-wing terror group is sung with conviction, and as ever, with a spirit of hope “make friends down in Alabam’ “. Perhaps the most surprising song on ‘The Times‘, ‘Campaigner‘ is the rarely performed song that contains empathy for Richard Nixon, acknowledging that even Tricky Dicky was human and could suffer “even Richard Nixon had it, soul.” It’s the listener’s choice as to whether to interpret this as a suggestion that the impeached 45th man in the job has less humanity than his notorious predecessor. ‘Ohio‘ – recorded at a distance which leaves the vocal somewhat strained but emphasises the guitar riff – is another mirror- history moment, a comment on a nation whose leader has contemplated deploying the citizen army to attack the protesting citizenry in the streets. And in the same vein it’s possible to take Dylan’s classic protest song – sung straight enough – as both a glimmer of hope and a continuing rallying cry for equality and also as a critique of an optimism that is in danger unravelling. It is, after all, nearly sixty years since Dylan first told us that there was a social revolution a-comin’.
The reworking of ‘Looking for a Leader‘ is Young’s clearest foot-stomping statement of his voting intentions: “we had Barak Obama and we really need him now” he sings, adding “the man who stood behind him has to take his place somehow / America has a leader building walls around our house he don’t know Black Lives Matter and we’ve got to vote him out.” By harkening back to the optimism of 2008 Neil Young imagines that there could be a leader for his nation who can “lead a rainbow of colours in a broken world gone wrong” whilst worrying that the election needs to be decisive because “corruption has a chance / we got to have a big win to regain confidence.” It’s followed by a short ‘Southern Man‘, the guitar solo replaced by blasts of harmonica – it’s as much a plea to join the modern world – “Southern change goin’ to come at last” – as it was on ‘After the Gold Rush‘. The closer is a heartbreakingly soft ‘Little Wing‘ (Neil’s not Jimi’s) which seems to be so fragile that it’ll surely fall apart before it completes: it’s the perfect finale, steeped deep in heartache.
It’s easy to joke that Neil Young’s recent output rate is akin to “another month another album“, he almost did as much himself on ‘Peace Trail‘ where he sang on ‘Can’t Stop Workin’‘ that “I can’t stop workin’ ‘cos I like to work when nothin’ else is goin’ on.” For an artist who feels he still has a lot to say what’s the alternative? A perfectly crafted release every four years isn’t going to cut it. And for the listener? Well, the rapid-fire of albums of new songs, archival old recordings polished up, and these stripped-back aural letters about what Neil’s thinking about today are, taken as a whole, a valuable rounded picture of a musician who is far from finished. This would never be the first thing you handed to someone new to Young, but it’s far from the least worthy of his recordings. If you got, and appreciated, the intent of ‘A Letter Home‘ then you’ll want to get ‘The Times‘.