It's been almost forty five years since Neil Young's first solo tour began one of the most remarkable careers in modern music. From a Woodstock-era folk-rock icon and introspective songwriter, to inimitable electric guitarist and godfather of grunge, few artists can match Young's substantial body of work for energy and quality. His live shows, whether with Crazy Horse, or solo, have always been electric, and his 2009 tour to promote Fork in the Road is proving that, at 64, he is as big a draw as ever.
This, Young's thirty fourth studio release, is an almost entirely electric affair and, at just under forty minutes, one of the shortest in his discography. Absent are the extended jams that have been a feature of much of his electric work since the '90s, nor are there any of the searing, fuzz and feedback solos which made him one of the most original of guitarists. Instead, there are ten short and punchy riff-based songs which jab an accusing finger at the greed of the financial institutions and the tunnel vision of the fuel and automobile companies; songs which above all, sound the need for change.
There is less of Young the story teller in this collection, though everyday people and their concerns are still central to most of the songs. Young sings of redundancies and repossession through the eyes of a pot bellied rig driver on the title track that "there's a bailout coming but it's not for me." After all these years Young's sense of injustice and defiance has not dimmed. His own optimism is most clearly heard on "Light a Candle," the album's only acoustic track, and perhaps the weakest here; it sounds like a '60s folk rally piece, but Fork in the Road is not an exercise in nostalgia, and any of that era's paisley-tinted idealism is tempered by the realism of "Just Singing a Song," as recognized in the verse "just singing a song won't change the world." Young's much publicized conversion of his old Lincoln Continental to use alternative energy, provided much of the inspiration for this album, as the heard in the lyrics, "...you can sing about change while you're makin' your own."
Young plays with old compadres; drummer Chad Cromwell's association with Young dates back twenty years and steel guitarist Ben Keith nearly twice that long. The band almost sounds like Crazy Horse, and it's easy to imagine the riffs developing into extended jams on stage, with Young's guitar cutting loose. This is not a classic Neil Young album, as too many of the songs fail to ignite, but not by much, where more of Young's incendiary guitar would have nailed it. Perhaps it is just that that chemistry with Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank Sampedro is missing on Fork in the Road.
Young surely has plenty of electricity and gas left in the tank as he sings, "I'm not done. Not giving up. Not cashing In." As if there was ever any doubt.
Personnel: Neil Young: electric and acoustic guitar, vocals; Ben Keith: lap steel
guitar, electric guitar, Hammond B-3 organ, vocals; Anthony Crawford:
electric and acoustic guitar, piano, Hammond B-3 organ; vocals; Pegi
Young: vibes, acoustic guitar, vocals; Rick Pasos: bass; Chad Cromwell: