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When Neil Young took his first stab at environmental advocacy in 1970 with “After the Gold Rush”—a sweet, somber retelling of a dream he has in which mankind so thoroughly befouls Mother Earth that they have to abandon her in spaceships—folk music was still among the younger set’s prime tools for expressing outrage. These days, the activists of Generation Y (i.e. the “UserGen”) are more apt to use a keyboard and a URL than a guitar and a microphone to disseminate a political message.
This being the case, Old Man Young deserves kudos for his willingness to adapt to the times. In advance of his latest record, “Fork in the Road”—a concept album celebrating his decision to convert his ’59 Lincoln Continental into a hybrid (who could blame him; can you imagine Neil Young’s grizzled visage glaring out from behind the wheel of a Prius?)—the 63-year-old roots-rocker made a dutiful foray into the 21st Century’s ultimate form of self-expression: He made weird Web videos.
These music videos, in keeping with the style du jour, are all recorded on a low-def camera with little regard for cinematography. The first one is set to the album’s title track, “Fork in the Road”—a fuzzbox blues riff about a laconic trucker whose dismay about the recent repossession of his plasma TV prompts him to reflect on the changing times. In the video, Neil plugs a pair of ear buds into an apple and proceeds to bob around for six minutes, rising once to shred a wicked air-guitar solo:
Another video, for the song “Cough up the Bucks,” is billed as a “corporate surveillance” clip and features Neil in a three-piece suit, nestled in the decadent payload of a slick corporate limousine. His impression of a Wall St. CEO involves fumbling with an iPhone, insisting that the person on the other end of the call “give up da bucks” and spending the intervening time crooning “Where did all the money go, where did all the cash flow?” During the song’s lengthy guitar solos Neil sits around looking bored, fussing with a copy of the Wall Street Journal and making clumsy keystrokes on his laptop.
The latest one, released about a month ago, is the most earnest of the videos, set to the most earnest of the album’s songs, “Light a Candle.” Neil sits with his guitar in front of a stainless-steel camper with his wife Pegi and a lit candle in the window, surrounded by lush Gulf underbrush. The video is ghostly and the melody ominous, but the lyrics are optimistic—far more so than “After the Gold Rush.”
And so from the slapdash architecture of the album—which, like the videos, is composed with a disregard for artistic subtlety—emerges a notable change in Neil Young’s attitude toward the fate of Planet Earth: Where 24-year-old Neil bemoaned an imminent environmental apocalypse, 63-year-old Neil seems to recant his former fatalism in favor of a more progenerative message: “Instead of cursing in the darkness, light a candle for where we’re goin’,” he sings. “There’s something ahead worth fighting for.”