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Neil Young - The Visitor (Album Review)

Tuesday, 12 December 2017 Written by Simon Ramsay

The presidency of Donald J. Trump has presented something of an open goal for singer-songwriters like Neil Young. These days, his protests may be as subtle as someone opening an envelope with a chainsaw, but hearing him unapologetically venting in a way many of today’s stars wouldn’t dare is undoubtedly refreshing.

Full of grumpy, indignant and disconsolate feelings about the modern world, Young’s recent albums have often found him doggedly pursuing his muse at the expense of quality control. Fortunately, ‘The Visitor’, which sees him reteaming with  Promise of the Real, the excellent backing band who featured on 2015’s ‘The Monsanto Years’, is one of his stronger efforts as principled views are expressed through entertaining music.

Already Great takes umbrage at Trump’s promise to restore the US to some sort of halcyon glory. Equal parts love-letter to his adopted homeland and defiant uprising, its cries of “no wall, no ban, no fascist USA” are shouted over down ‘n’ dirty lo-fi guitar savagery.

Stand Tall also seethes with protest ire as it takes aim at a “boy king” who denies climate change in favour of the “big money truth”. His most cheeky swipe at the Donald, though, arrives with Children of Destiny.

Sounding like Young’s attempt to pen a contemporary national anthem, its huge orchestral marching sound, which engulfs surprisingly dreamy Disney-esque verses, is incredibly resonant at a time when many NFL players are taking a knee in protest during the Star Spangled Banner.

Some have criticised this record for failing to explore the focus of its diatribes in greater depth. Young is certainly purging everything inside his head without pause, but that scattershot approach echoes the same confusion, disbelief and distress many US citizens are currently struggling to process. What does hamper his message, though, is that he often defaults to hippy idealism. Singing about standing together and saving the planet for the children feels anachronistic and futile to anyone who follows both the news and a certain person’s Twitter feed.

His heartfelt confessions feel more personal and fully realised during a trio of acoustic folk ruminations. On Almost Always he wearily states “I’m living with a game show host, who has to brag and has to boast, ‘bout tearin’ down the things that I hold dear.” Change Of Heart, meanwhile, is a gently stirring message to persevere against formidable odds and, on the 10 minute Forever, Young tells us “Earth is like a church without a preacher” as he bemoans rampant development at the expense of nature’s beauty.  

‘The Visitor’ is the 39th record of the Canadian’s career and was made in a two week period where whirlwind creativity once again took precedence over sage refinement. This high-wire balancing act mostly works, particularly on the oddball Carnival where its Santana-styled Latin textures and allegorical celebration of diversity thrill. Conversely, the sarcastically scathing Blaxploitation funk-rocker Fly By Night Deal feels rushed and underdeveloped when it could have been a classic. Also, When Bad Got Good resembles an embryonic mumbled demo.  

These days we’ve come to expect a certain unevenness about Young’s work, with listening to new releases akin to digging in the dirt for the odd gold nugget. Thankfully, due to its wildly eclectic and enjoyable songs, relatable sentiments and strong musicianship, the ratio of treasure to mud is pretty good on ‘The Visitor’.

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