Neil Young is the last great North American drifter. Just look at the picture of him; he’s an older, mellower Wolverine. Check out his extensive back catalogue. It seems like he’s been wandering around America for the past 30 years, armed with muttonchops, scraggly hair and a harmonica.
The great thing about Young is how this wanderlust shows up in his song writing. He’s constantly shifting genres, going from a politically charged folk-singer to the Godfather of Grunge between recording sessions. Each new album begs the question, “Which Neil Young are we going to get?” 2000’s Silver and Gold found him exploring his trademarked brand of stripped down country, last seen on the huge commercial success, Harvest Moon.
On Are You Passionate, Young has learned from the mistakes of that previous album, beefing up his delicate songs with the rhythm section of Booker T & the MG’s. Their influence is apparent right from the start, as “You’re My Girl” shuffles along with an infectious R&B groove. The last time Young wrote anything with a hint of southern soul was back in his days with Buffalo Springfield; naturally, this change comes as quite a surprise, albeit a welcome one.
Those who accuse all Neil Young songs of sounding the same, consider yourself proved wrong. He makes it more than halfway through the record with the swagger set by the first track, most notably on the loose pop of “Differently.” Even when he slows things down and gets sentimental, as on “Mr. Disappointment,” it’s a little more playful than the love songs of past records. All of this, the song writing and expanded sound, comes together on the title track, one of the best songs he’s recorded in years.
The album’s low point comes on “Let’s Roll,” the Sept. 11-inspired song that Passionate will be remembered for. It’s not the music that drags it down; the sinister pseudo-funk makes for an interesting listen. With lines like, “We’re goin’ after Satan/ On the wings of a dove,” the words leave a lot to be desired. It’s a nice thought, immortalizing the passengers of Flight 93, but the lyrics are just bad.
So skip ahead to “Goin’ Home,” the one bona fide rocker on the album. Crazy Horse, Young’s long-time back up band, helps give it the primal stomp of vintage songs like “Hey Hey, My My.” It’s great to hear them together again, extending the song to almost nine minutes. The instrumental sections are classic Young, with the same sloppy solos he’s been playing his entire career.
After his rock n’ roll excursion, Young brings back the soul groove. Be sure to check out the album’s back half, because I guarantee you’ll have “Be With You” stuck in your head for days. It’s too bad he didn’t write it earlier in his career; it’s got “Motown hit-single” written all over it. Songs like this make Passionate both an interesting and enjoyable listen. It’s a fresh sound for a classic rock icon, and with a celebrated career that began in the 60’s, that’s worthy of praise in itself. The bigger complement is that nothing on the album sounds forced, but rather totally comfortable. And really good.