When political music doesn’t work, it can be a bit of a testing listen. Notably late on the anti-Trump music bandwagon, this latest record for Neil Young + Promise of the Real, and Young’s second album this year, does feel a little dry. Despite their earnest intentions lyrics are often goofy or too literal. Many of the songs themselves are too noticeably derivative of Young’s previous work, or strangely out there in the wrong ways. This said, the moments that do feel tight and provocative leave an inspiring sense of hope, but with a notable lack of cohesion on the record it doesn’t always feel like a constant.
Starting with a heavy take on classic Young, “Already Great” mixes the harmonies of CSNY with more distortion than ever before. While some of his weirder production is a welcome shift, some of the lyrics are so hilariously earnest that they feel corny. “Fly By Night Deal” is a chugging track that mixes a heavy beat with hilariously spritely guitars and keys. Tying it together with the powerful chorus vocals, Young’s quirky delivery makes it a short but sweet moment on the record.
“Almost Always” moves on a Jimmy Buffetf-esque sway that despite its sadness is a little too relaxed for its own emotional strengths. A real stretch of time for its essentially singular progression, even clever lyrics get lost in the bland delivery. As he cuts in interview footage under his guitar grime, “Stand Tall” feels like the most powerful protest track of the album’s first half. Even with some of the on-the-nose lyricism that feels surprisingly lazy for Young, the spirit behind it makes it stand out.
While you may feel a little too familiar with the simple chords of “Change Of Heart” there’s a much more tender narrative here that makes it feel worth its extended run. The light bells and whistle solos make the track’s more clever attempt at political music all the stronger. “Carnival” carries a mystifying Latin rhythm to its verses that tell a strange and supernatural story. This magic is slowly lost however through the hard turns on its chorus, that feels not only disjointed but off-kilter to a fault.
“Diggin’ a Hole” stands as one of the most confusing tracks on the record, running a very muddy swamp rock bass that works for what it is. The one-liner verses are needlessly bland and slow, meaning even a Neil Young die hard may have trouble really finding anything profound here. Beyond the hard transitions of “Children of Destiny” there’s a bright and triumphant chorus that carries the hope it tries to communicate. Painfully blunt on the swelling strings however, Young needs his huge brass section to make each of his choruses feel right.
Taking a bar blues swing on “When Bad Got Good” is an all too obvious flip of Trump’s lock her up chants from the election spun into a satire of Donald himself. Sonically one of the more varied and stirring songs on the album, “Forever” will be a treat for Young fan and perhaps just a little too loose for general listeners.
Words by Owen Maxwell