2016 has been a watershed year for folk music, what with Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel prize for literature, Paul Simon’s latest genre-challenging album and Leonard Cohen’s swan song of a final record. Neil Young joins them now with his upcoming (and 38th overall) album, Peace Trail. As is customary in folk, it is rife with themes of current events and social critique.
Unlike Young’s previous album, Earth, which experimented with the boundaries between noise and music by utilizing such unorthodox sound effects as those from wildlife and natural phenomena, Peace Trail plays much more like a straightforward folk album, featuring prominent acoustic stylings and activist leanings.
Written over four days, Peace Trail follows a cohesive path through the history of colonial exploitation and othering, weaving through the mire of the recent protests opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline for its negative environmental and cultural impacts. Young has demonstrated his unity with the activists at Standing Rock through public statements and performances, including one he gave on his 71st birthday in honor of the protestors.
Out of the 10 tracks of Peace Trail, three (“Indian Givers,” “Show Me” and “Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders”) are explicitly linked to contemporary activist causes. The idiom “Indian givers” is one steeped in a history of racism and exploitation, alluding to the early colonists’ perception that Native Americans cut deceptive deals, making trades out of supposed gifts. Young turns the phrase on its head by using it to describe the current “battle raging on the sacred land.” For the past “500 years,” Young warbles, the indigenous populations of the United States have had their resources, culture and sacred lands robbed from them by European colonists and their descendants; if any one group were “Indian givers,” it would be the settlers.
In both “Indian Givers” and “Show Me,” Young laments the Standing Rock conflict and expresses his discontent with big oil’s impact on public policy: “Behind big money,” he sighs in “Indian Givers,” “justice always fails.”
“Terrorist Suicide Hang Gliders,” while also socially critical, takes a more ironic tack, examining xenophobia by simulating it. With its sensationalist title at odds with its mellow instrumentals, this song grasps attention at first listen; add in the lyrics of a suspicious narrator verging on hawkish (“I think I know who to blame — it’s all those people with funny names moving into our neighborhood”), and “Hang Gliders” begins to resemble the witch-hunt of vigilante anti-terrorism. This blurred line between national security and overt racism, an especially relevant theme today, is more subtly commented upon here. By creating a dubiously trustworthy narrator, Young urges listeners to perhaps reconsider our own inner monologues next time we wonder about outsiders “if they’re bad or good.”
Even in Peace Trail tracks that don’t target current events, Young demonstrates the lyrical and musical acumen that has earned him renown. Given folk’s antiquated roots, Peace Trail simultaneously respects the genre’s grounding and transmutes it into a more modern art form.
Sonically, the most obvious sign of this blend of past, present, and future comes from the juxtaposition of acoustic and electronic sound. The opening track “Peace Trail” blends acoustic guitar with electric bass undertones. Young’s wistful falsetto is tempered by his voice’s electronic twin — himself, autotuned, serving as his own backup singer.
“My Pledge,” atop a barely discernible acoustic guitar and plodding drum beat, features the distinctive layering of spoken words, narrating the history of the colonization of the United States as well as its music scenes, with the same words gingerly warbled by a computer at the same time.
The Standing Rock protests recently made history Dec. 4, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers mandated a rerouting of the pipeline. Although the influence of art and social media on public policy is often mentioned with cynicism, this development reflects that, in the same historical vein as music activism in the Vietnam War opposition and the Civil Rights Movement, folk music like Young’s still has the potential to bolster grassroots movements.
Peace Trail releases Dec. 9.