Yet Another Re-Appraisal of Fork in the Road
It's been about 9 months now since some the songs on what would come to be known as Fork in the Road were first debuted on the 2008 European tour.
As time went by -- oddly -- it seemed that the reaction to the new songs became more and more hostile. We simply could not understand how the new unreleased songs seemed to not even be given a chance before being consigned to Neil Young's slagheap of failures.
The attempts to defend the new songs seemed to only generate the backlash that not only did the new songs suck, but that Neil Young was washed and done. Neil's muse had failed him and he should simply release the Archives and call it a day.
All in all quite disheartening that even Neil's greatest fans for 10, 20, 30, or 40 years were throwing in the towel before an album was even released based on one-off concert performances, crappy YouTubes, and audience tapes. Even folks claiming to have come around on TRANS, Reactor, or Greendale or insert your favorite under appreciated/misunderstood Neil album of your choice here.
It got so bad in March that it was literally a battle raging on this blog that led us to a quite regrettable outburst.
In retrospect, it all seems truly bizarre now that the album is out. Here we are, on a nice spring weekend, with FITR blasting in the CD player, windows down, buzzing down the open road and it all sounds like a perfect roadtrip album to us. But that's just a us and apparently a few others.
In our Fork in the Road review last week where we laid out the case that FITR fits into a final chapter of trilogy formed by Greendale and Living With War, some other brave souls have come forward to say that they were premature in their assessment and were now also recognizing the brilliant simplicity of FITR and it's compelling message.
Like this mea culpa for Fork in the Road by Charlie:
OK, I was wrong about Fork in the Road – I shouldn’t have doubted Neil. FITR has greatly exceeded my expectations. I really like this album, and it keeps getting better with each play. Over the past couple months as the new songs destined for FITR were rolled out, I posted a number of comments on Thrasher's Wheat stating that I was less than thrilled by them; in fact, I thought they were some of the weakest material Neil has done. I stand by my criticisms, particularly that a bit more word craft could have done wonders in some songs. But overall, the album overcomes those weaknesses, and manages to be the best thing he's done in quite a while.
Or Andrews Rock Blog:
I love to be wrong sometimes. Usually it’s when it comes to music. I love to have low expectations on something and then have it exceed those expectations. That’s exactly what Neil Young has done for me with his new album Fork In The Road. When it was announced that Neil was going to postpone his massive Archives boxset because he had a new album about his car he wanted to release, I was super ticked off. I haven’t been impressed with the last few Neil albums, and I was so looking forward to the box set, I figured there was no way I was going to enjoy Fork In The Road. Well, I was wrong.
Or The Other Paper's review by JOHN PETRIC:
Why do critics hate this?
Goodness gracious, I wasn’t aware until after I’d first heard it that Neil Young’s new album, Fork in the Road, was so, uh, controversial with certain media-types around the world who’ve given it some serious thumbing down.
Ah, silly rock critics—never trust your opinion to one of ’em. But then again, what am I telling you for? You love me because you hate me. Fair enough.
The new Neil Young record is, at times, pretty damn good. It’s themed on his electric-car project, namely turning an ancient Lincoln Continental into a non-fossil-fuel-burning moving mobile, which apparently he has. It’s his cause.
Those big, lumbering dinosaur chords, the limpid melody walking through a hauntingly gorgeous minor key of the kind Neil specializes in—I am in love with this song.
I don’t give a flying fire truck what other people think. This album may end up a minor Neil classic along the lines of Tonight’s the Night. Long may he run, on electricity, off-shore oil or his own goddam gumption.
Damn the critics, full steam ahead!
So with all this said, here is yet another re-appraisal of Fork in the Road by Anonymous (who we really feel should come out and stand up for this comment):
Firstly, I'd like to consider "Just Singing a Song" a bit more closely. Of course, one of the great things about Neil is that most of his songs really can be interpreted a number of ways, but one of the biggest mistakes a fan or listener can make is to be narrow-minded in interpretation and assessment. I hope I don't come off as taking things too seriously, but a Neil Young song is rarely about any one thing; there are multiple inspiring factors.
"Just Singing a Song" really isn't about cars as I see it-- certainly not in the same way that "Fuel Line" or " Get Behind the Wheel" are. It is about exactly what the title suggests: change, and more precisely, making it happen. With his Lincvolt project, it would seem Neil is trying to make a particular, large-scale change: make cars convenient for the environment and economy, as well as on-the-go people who really have no choice in this day and age but to use them. Hence, he brings up his car in one verse, because although it has to do with change, the car itself is not the focal point or overall theme of the song. That would be change, social and personal, and the idea that it's difficult to make it happen: just picking up a guitar and playing a song is not, in and of itself, going to make that change happen. A far more cliche way of saying it would be, "be the change you want to see."
So "Just Singing a Song" can safely be designated as not being about cars. Unless, of course, I am being too intellectual, and not simple-minded enough, in defining a "song about cars." Just because a lyric mentions a motor vehicle, this does not mean the vehicle is the focus or theme of the song. Personally, I'd think that level of lyrical analysis would be second nature to a Neil Young fan.
Lots of Neil's songs--and lots of the ones on this album--use motion as a theme, and often a metaphor for something. When Neil talked about the "Spirit Road" on his previous album, he wasn't literally talking about paved street, or going for a ride, but about an emotional journey. This is because one of the things Neil does best and most frequently is to write songs about feeling and emotion, about life-- about the human condition. Neil has a remarkable way of, through his songs, connected to people, their success, and the challenges they face daily.
In "HIt the Road", a song that some would say is about cars, Neil talks about the people in the cities make their daily commutes. He does this, it would seem, partially to draw attention to the pollution the vehicles involved in the commute cause, but he also speaks of people trying to keep up the energy and morale to keep following this routine day-in and day-out, to "stay in the groove." I am not a psychologist, but I'd say people who go to and from a workplace--or school--every day of the week should be able to relate to this one way or another.
Simply put, cars can be a component of the lyrics of a Neil Young song, but this does not constitute that they are the focus or them of the song in question. Which brings us to this album, "Fork in the Road." I like it quite a bit myself, some tracks more than others. It's said to be inspired by his Lincvolt, and indeed environmentally sound cars are the primary focus of several of the songs. There are many numbers, however, that clearly aren't "about cars" if one pays more attention than the average music critic:
The opening track, "When Worlds Collide" is a perfect example. It's one my favorites, with a melody that really grabs your attention and works well as an album opener. One may automatically infer that in "taking a trip across the USA", a car is involved--and one is likely to be correct--but the fact remains that the journey, not the transportation, is the theme of the song. It's a strong lyric, if not obvious in its meaning. There is neither time or nor space for extensive analysis here, but suffice it to say that lines like "living my days in a old jail, somehow life just goes to hell with one bad hand" provoke the mind into enough exercise.
Other songs not specifically, or largely, about cars:
"Off the Road" (again, about the feeling), "Light a Candle" (obvious), "Cough up the Bucks" (also obvious, and to be brought up again later), "Fork in the Road" (yes, it mentions a road, a rig, and a pickup truck, but are we really that myopic?)
Most of these are very good songs, particularly the absolutely excellent "Light a Candle", currently my favorite song on the album. I also like "Off the Road." It relates to the daily human condition, as I elaborated on earlier. These are the only quiet numbers on the album, and it is interesting to note that they are among the best, and perhaps not entirely coincidental in my case: I am a big fan of Neil's acoustic, so-called "mellow" side.
I mentioned "Cough up the Bucks" earlier, and indicated I'd come back to it. It's grown on me since initial listening, especially the riff before the verses.
Lyrically, it seems a bit shallow at first, until you realize Neil is making a tongue-in-cheek comment about the current state of the economy--read: bailouts--and just how self-serving some of our "civil servants" have been of late. I actually like this song and think there are worse ones on this album alone, never mind the rest of Neil's catalogue.
"Fork in the Road" also brings up the bailout as a central element: "There's a bailout coming, but it's not for you. It's for those creeps, hiding what they do." It's different from what Neil's done before, and I think it's pretty good. Some of it is pretty funny: "download this/sounds like s***/keep on blogging, till the lights go out." This what some have called talking blues, and is not the most eloquent or poetic thing Neil has ever written, but that doesn't matter as that pretty clearly wasn't the intent with this album. This isn't necessarily an example of a Neil Young song I'll come back to again and again, but it's enjoyable in context, like much of this album.
Along with "When Worlds Collide" and "Light a Candle", "Just Singing a Song" is among the best on here. Neil plays some tantalizingly brief electric guitar and I've already talked about the lyrics, which are among the finest on the album.
This about leaves the songs that are about cars. "Hit the Road" is arguable, as I have already summarized. In any event, it is the best of the remaining tracks, really connecting at a basic, almost primal, level to the human condition. I prefer to think of it as more about the environment than about cars, and also about people, which can be said of any number of Shakey's songs. The remaining songs are, for me, lesser material, which could be quite telling depending on how you interpret it.
"Get Behind the Wheel" has a fun Chuck Berry-like feeling to it, which I like. But it is bland lyrically, and probably the least interesting song on the album.
The humor of "Fuel Line" has grown on me, but it still isn't much as far as lyrics. At least it keeps up the pace as the second. I do have to emphasize that I like this track more than I did initially; I think I've gotten the humorous attitude with which Young approached the song. And to be honest, given that subject, to do a song intended to be serious, and which most people could take seriously, would probably be quite difficult.
Lastly is "Johnny Magic", a mechanic that worked on Neil's Lincoln, I hear tell. It's a good melody--among many, the album is strong musically--but lyrically uninteresting to me and seems, though it isn't a word I relish to use--nor do I often have the opportunity--in connection with Neil Young, bland. It's got that rock 'n' roll vibe to it again, and it seems to me that Neil touches on the theme of bringing about change again, from the perspective of one character. Regardless, I don't feel it stands out among the other numbers, even if the vibe is, as mentioned previously, a fun one.
So overall, this is a pretty good album. I like it more than I initially did, some tracks growing on me in ways I didn't expect. Neil has done that to me before. I won't say this album is near as great as the classics from the '70s, or even his strongest work from the '90s and past few years, such as the absolutely sublime "Chrome Dreams II", "Silver and Gold", and "Sleeps with Angels", but the extreme negative reaction to it is, I think unfounded and exaggerated to ridiculous degrees at times.
I have to laugh thinking about it: anyone who is listening with both ears should be able to tell this isn't just an album "about cars".
So, in conclusion, we thought this review summed up FITR quite nicely. From The Music Magazine by Chris Sheerin:
On the surface, Fork In The Road is an automotive-themed concept album highlighting Young’s own obsession with a project to create an alternative power supply for cars (the LincVolt project is using his own 1959 Lincoln Continental as a prototype) but it follows the blatant political objections of Living With War in a much more concise and direct way. Young has created a fairly ordinary garage rock (see what he did there?) album celebrating the world of the automobile and fused in some ironic commentary about the environmentally destructive pastime. This approach will ultimately divide fans and critics, but knowing what Young is now dedicating his life to it all makes sense. And this process has created a decent album.
Within all the greasy overall-wearing car-based metaphor is a real sense of reality; a finger firmly on the social and political pulse, like it has always been. It would be difficult to understand why Neil Young would do anything else than to comment on current times, particularly when the world is under the clouds of global economic crisis and impending threat. And there is no better muse than misery. While Springsteen has his head full of dreams, and Dylan is removing himself from the political lure, Young has his feet on solid ground, still toiling and campaigning for the common ‘middle-American’ man. The title of the album, and indeed the title track itself, represents a divided America with citizens faced with a choice of left or right…but at the same time it is the perfect analogy for convergence, as the old broken America of Bush makes way for the new historic vision of Obama. Whether Fork In The Road is remembered as a classic like After The Goldrush and Harvest is a matter of debate but it certainly is an album marking a point in history.
But, there will always be those who can not get it, and will never get it, because they can't change their minds. Sad.