Consistency has never been a word one could use to describe Neil Young. His music is often political, frequently exquisite and has been profoundly influential, but the man himself rarely finds something and sticks with it — his in-and-out track record with Crosby, Stills and Nash is just one example of this pattern. With “Fork in the Road,” Young’s new concept album, the Canadian folk-rock legend once again demonstrates his unpredictability.
“Fork in the Road” addresses the industrial age, the open highway and the American dream, but its main theme is simple — the album is about cars, featuring tracks like “Hit The Road,” “Off The Road” and “Get Behind the Wheel.” But the album is not about cars in the iconic, wistful way that one might think. Rather, “Fork In the Road” works in tandem with his 2006 protest album “Living With War.” Now Young has turned his songwriting eye onto America’s internal issues with the burning of fossil fuels and the floundering American automotive industry. The results, to be polite, are mixed.
For the majority of “Fork In the Road,” Young employs his own oddly distorted rockabilly. The tracks are rife with overdriven blues guitar, certainly fitting with the album’s less-than-subtle motif. Unfortunately, though, Young’s voice does not lend itself to the genre. That trademark haunting singing voice is immediately recognizable for its highness and piercing clarity, and when it’s muddied by that loud ch-chang ch-chang of the blues guitar, something is lost. The sounds just don’t fit. The album’s biggest successes, “Off the Road” and “Light a Candle,” come when Young returns to a more soulful, acoustic sound.
Sound mixing, however, is not this project’s major problem. Where “Fork in the Road” ultimately misses is in its dogged determination to make a point. Gone are Young’s poetic lyrics, replaced by expository lines with a smattering of descriptive similes that leave something to be desired. One example will illustrate the point: “Fuel Line” is a song written to an electric car. Seriously. In the second verse come the lyrics, “The awesome power of electricity / Stored for you in a giant battery / She runs so quiet, she’s just like a ghost.” Meanwhile, the backup singers chime in, “Keep running that fuel line, keep running that ol’ fuel line.” The mood feels absurd, a tone Young was probably not aiming for. In “Cough Up The Bucks,” a commentary on the price of gas, Young sings, “Where did all the money go? Where did all the cash flow? Where did all the revenue stream?” And throughout, the backup vocalists return chanting over and over, like a mantra of modern society, “Cough up the bucks, cough up the bucks.” It’s like none of his producers told Young it should have been a comedy.
The few passable parts of “Fork in the Road” recall Young’s earlier work, the songs and lyrics that influenced Grunge. But if this album is any indication, Young needs to look start looking forward, not backward. One of his more interesting lyrics does firmly root him in the present tense. It goes “Just singing a song won’t change the world,” a cynical and wryly contemporary suggestion to take action. Meanwhile, we’ll just give the guy some slack for some missteps and let him move on. Because, you know. He’s fucking Neil Young.