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Fork in the road

Craggy eco-concept record not the car-crash it could have been

Rating: 5 / 10

Olaf Tyaransen, 27 Mar 2009

Just two years shy of his free bus pass, Neil Young ain’t really so young anymore, which probably explains why the iconic Canadian rocker has been slowing down a lot in recent years. Not that he’s slowed his creative output, mind. Fork in The Road is his 31st studio album and his eighth major release of the Noughties (highlights of which include 2003’s homegrown rock opera Greendale and 2006’s protest-song broadside Living With War).

Where he has slowed down somewhat is on the proud highway. A dedicated environmentalist, Young has spent the last few years involved in a project to power vehicles differently. This album is based on his experiences retooling an old 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV to run on alternative fuels. A 19-foot, tail-finned, two-ton behemoth, in its original configuration the car was an ecological disaster, guzzling gas the way Shane MacGowan guzzles gargle.

Working with a biodiesel researcher named Jonathan Goodwin, Young converted the car to battery power, with a biodiesel engine for back-up. Renaming it the Lincvolt, the unlikely pair took a cross-country gasoline-free road trip across the States to Washington DC. This journey will be the subject of a forthcoming documentary and, given that one of the songs is named after Goodwin, presumably Fork In The Road is the soundtrack (“Taking a trip across the USA/Gonna see a lot of people along the way/from far and wide”).

So, swiftly and sporadically recorded between 2008 tour dates with his live band – Anthony Crawford (guitar), Ben Keith (steel guitar), Chad Cromwell (drums), Rick Rosas (bass) and vocalist wife Pegi Young – this is ostensibly a grungy rock ‘n roll concept album about a homemade electric automobile. While it’s far from Young’s best work, it’s not quite as awful as it sounds.

Of the 10 songs featured, five titles are direct references to cars and driving – ‘Fuel Line’, ‘Get Behind The Wheel’, ‘Off The Road, ‘Hit The Road’ and the title track. The song for Goodwin is the foot-stomping ‘Johnny Magic’: “Johnny Magic had a way with metal/had a way with machines/one day in a garage far away, he met destiny/in the form of a heavy metal Continental.”

Other numbers provide further rumination on Young’s various social and ecological concerns. Although he plaintively sings the refrain “Just singing a song won’t change the world” on one of the better tracks ‘Just Singing A song’, it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe that for a moment (why else would he bother?).

While the music is somewhat rough and ready, more honky-honk than honky-tonk, this release is about as current as it gets. What’s most evident is his utter disgust with the capitalists and corporations behind the global economic meltdown. On ‘Cough Up The Bucks” he asks, “Where did all the money go?/ Where did the cash flow?/Where did all the revenue stream?” On the excellent title track, which closes the album, he rails angrily against the bankers to a Jimmy Reeves-style blues groove: “There’s a bailout coming, but it’s not for me,” he sings. “It’s for all those creeps watching tickers on TV.”

You might think that a mega-successful artist like Neil Young wouldn’t need a bail-out at this stage of his career, but on the very same song he begs to differ: “I’m a big rock star/my sales have tanked/but I’ve still got you... thanks!”

Thanks yourself, Young feller! But much like your electric automobile, this concept album isn’t quite up to speed.

Rating: 5 / 10

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