On May 4, 1970, National Guardsmen fired their weapons above, below, and into a crowd of unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio. Four students were killed, nine wounded. On May 15, LIFE magazine dedicated its cover and a set of photo spreads to the killings, giving America a firsthand look at the results of what it called “senseless and brutal murder at point-blank range.” And on May 21, after seeing those pictures, Neil Young brought a new song to his bandmates Crosby, Stills, and Nash.
The song was called “Ohio”, and it was a howl of rage and confusion against “tin soldiers and Nixon.” The music was a fierce, harsh protest march, returning again and again to stark statements and questions. “Soldiers are cutting us down.” “What if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground?” It was on the radio just a few weeks after the shootings, elbowing its way onto the charts to sit ironically alongside CSNY’s much more optimistic “Teach Your Children.” “Ohio” is the iconic example of pop music responding to world events with galvanizing immediacy, marrying the folk protest tradition of Woody Guthrie to the power of mass distribution, broadcasting, and electric instruments.
Peace Trail finds Young in “Ohio” mode. He recorded the whole album in four days, and its songs are full of responses to the tumultuous headlines of November 2016. The album was released on December 9, just a few weeks after the events it references. But there are some differences too. Where “Ohio” mentioned Nixon directly, Peace Trail doesn’t name Donald Trump or Standing Rock. And where “Ohio” was energized and powerful, Peace Trail is overall more muted, more acoustic, and more contemplative.
The album starts with its title track, and its best song. Over chords vaguely reminiscent of “Rockin’ In The Free World,” Young observes that “something new is growing” in and among the same old signs, and that this new development has moved him to “hit the peace trail.” He’s decided to keep his hand in, to not cash it in yet — and this album is evidence of that decision. To my ears, it’s a pretty clear reference to the election of Donald Trump, “something new” in an American president: no experience, little interest in governing, swept into power on a tide of authoritarian appeals to racism, misogyny, and xenophobia. People of all stripes were energized by this election to hit their own versions of the peace trail, to speak up and stand up wherever and however they can to protect the vulnerable, resist economic inequality, and forestall environmental disaster. Young is speaking for all of those people in this song.
Why would a 71-year-old artist maintain this level of commitment, still responding to the news after 46 years when so many of his contemporaries have faded away or locked themselves into an endless run-out groove of nostalgia? He explains why in track two: “Can’t Stop Workin’.” Continued dedication like Young’s is “bad for the body, but it’s good for the soul,” so he tells us, and once again, this album is evidence. His voice has always had a frail, tender quality to it, but he sounds particularly ragged in many of the tracks on this album. Despite that, though, his facility with words is intact, as is the fire in his belly.
“Indian Givers” and “Show Me” provide evidence of that. The first is a clear explication of the conflict over the Dakota Acccess Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. For me, the second verse to this song is the most powerful moment on the whole album:
Now it’s been about 500 years
We keep taking what we gave away
Just like what we call Indian givers
It makes you sick and gives you shivers
It’s one of those moments when poetry and words can bring together ideas to form an undeniable conceptual juggernaut, blowing through any possible opposition. “Show Me” isn’t quite so concrete, but is still clearly grounded in the “battle over water” on the sacred land.
None of these songs has the urgency of “Ohio.” They tend to roll along at midtempo or slower, mostly acoustic guitar, drums, percussion, and quiet bass, with the occasional intrusion of harmonica so heavily distorted it sounds like guitar, or perhaps it’s the other way around, or both at different times. After “Show Me,” though, something unsettling starts to happen. Young seems to more or less run out of musical ideas.
“Texas Rangers” is spoken rather than sung by Young, over a quasi-musical figure that is singsongy in the extreme. It reminds me of the little non-songs some people (including my spouse) sometimes hum to themselves as they go about their business, narrating the mundane events of their lives. “Wipe the counter, fill the cat bowl, fold the laundry and sweep the floor.” I was tired of it the first time I heard it, before it even ended. Talk-singing like this dominates the latter half of the album, especially on songs like “John Oaks” and “My Pledge”, which are more or less Young reciting doggerel over simple beats.
The whole thing winds up with the baffling “My New Robot,” which seems to be pretty much the story of an unemployed guy sitting around the house, getting a robot in the mail from Amazon.com, and programming it to say odd and incoherent things for a loved one. It’s a very strange ending to an album so engaged with the political and environmental aspects of the world, and an unsatisfying one at that.
That’s not to say that the latter half of the album doesn’t have its moments. Young nails a character study in “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders,” in which frightened white people ask, “It’s all those people with funny names / moving into our neighborhood / How can I tell if they’re bad or good?” without any recognition that “all those people” might ask the same question about them, and often with much more legitimate cause to feel threatened. The auto-tuned sung background on “My Pledge” is a haunting avant-garde evocation of the soul and emotion that can linger behind a plainspoken presentation. And “Glass Acccident” effectively captures how many of us felt waking up on the morning of November 9th.
Still, overall Peace Trail ends up a fairly slight and uneven album, gradually petering out after a promising beginning. Nevertheless, it’s the first rock and roll response I’ve seen to the New Trump Order, and as I’ve said, it has some very powerful moments. It’s not exactly The Rising, but it’s still something to be grateful for. Neil Young can’t stop working, and we all get to reap the benefits.