In a move that deliberately echoes the rush release of "Ohio" in the wake of the Kent State shootings, Neil Young bashed out his 2006 protest record Living with War in a matter of days, sometimes recording songs the day they were written, and then seized the opportunities of the digital age by streaming the entire album on his website only weeks after it was recorded, with the official digital and CD releases trailing several days later. It's the best use yet of the instant, widespread distribution that the Web has to offer, and it also hearkens back to the days when folk music was topical, turning the news into song. But if the ballads of the 19th century were passed along gradually, growing along the way, or if the protest tunes of the folk revival of the 1950s and '60s grew in stature being performed regularly, gaining strength as singer after singer sang them, Living with War captures a specific moment in time: early 2006, when George W. Bush's approval ratings slipped to the low 30s, as discontent sowed by the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, rising gas prices, and much more turned into a general malaise in the country (or in political shorthand, it was the moment when George W. turned into Jimmy Carter). To some, the specificity of Young's writing on Living with War will forever date it, but that's a risk with any topical folk, rock, or pop, from "We Shall Overcome" to "We Are the World" -- or "Ohio," for that matter. Young is aware of this and embraces the allegedly short shelf life of his songs for Living with War by directly addressing the political turmoil in the U.S.A. in 2006 and the real human wreckage it has left behind. As such, it will function as a vivid document of its era, as much as any journalism of its time, but Living with War isn't rock-as-CNN: it's a work of art, and it's a canny one at that, with Young drawing on familiar words and music to create both historic and emotional context for his songs. It's not merely clever that "Living with War" quotes "The Star Spangled Banner," or that "Flags of Freedom" consciously reworks Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" -- it helps tie Young's work to the past and gives his new work greater resonance. And nowhere is that more true than on "Let's Impeach the President" and how its melody recalls "The City of New Orleans" to help underscore what was lost in the government's bungled reaction to Katrina's devastation to the legendary American city. With a grandstanding title like that, along with its George W. soundbites, "Let's Impeach the President" is the flashiest song here, and it crystallizes what's good about the album: sure, it pulls no punches and it's angry, but it's not just ranting; it's artfully written and effective, as is Living with War as a whole. It's not perfect, but it has a vitality lacking in Young's recorded work of the last 15 years or so, and its blend of Greendale's loud, meandering guitar rock and the bittersweet mournful, aging hippie vibe of Prairie Wind is not only appealing, it's better executed than either of those good yet flawed records -- and that execution not only applies to the ragged glory of the recording, but to the songs themselves. They manage to be unified in a way that Young wanted Greendale to be but didn't quite pull off, yet they also stand on their own and are, overall, more memorable than those on Prairie Wind. And that's the reason why, politics aside, Living with War stands as a very strong, effective Neil Young album that will continue to have a punch long after the George W. Bush administration has faded into the history books.
Living with War Review
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine