On his new album The Times, Neil Young revisits old classics and deep cuts. He updates previous songs and covers others. It is meant to be a reflective experience, examining the way protest music, specifically Young’s, has changed over time, and how it may adapt to the conditions of the 2020s.
The core of The Times is Young’s revisitation of his old work. For example, this is the best version of Young’s 1972 song “Alabama.” The open acoustic guitar sweetly dominates the song, and Young’s voice is secondary, further from the microphone. This sound is the highlight of The Times, an honest and stripped-down live display of Young’s proficiency with the folk guitar he’s known for.
However, The Times peaks here. “Alabama” offers a focus on acoustics and atmosphere, and this sound persists through the record. What follows is a series of tired and even detrimental concepts in the realm of protest music. “Campaigner,” for example, starts with some deftly played guitar and strained but impactful singing. Still, it is hard to assess “Campaigner” as a real, protesting folk song when Young sings “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.” It doesn’t feel like protest; it feels like complicity.
Perhaps Young is making a comparative observation, lamenting the state of American politics now when viewed through the lens of the past. Unfortunately, this observation comes across as naive, as many Americans seem content to rehabilitate figures such as Nixon who were known for their corruption and scandals.
This rehabilitation even happens with modern politicians such as former president George W. Bush. Bush, who has been named as among the worst presidents in U.S. history, was also once the subject of Young’s 2006 song “Lookin’ for a Leader,” a direct criticism of the former president’s administration and a lamentation of the world at the time. Now, it seems that Young, along with many others, has discarded these criticisms in favor of stronger ones made against the current administration on “Lookin’ for a Leader — 2020.”
Young updates this song with a myriad of modern references, from the Black Lives Matter movement to a tacit endorsement of Democrat candidate Joe Biden. With his music, Young has always pushed for what he sees as a better world. But buried underneath The Times is a disappointment and a sinister sadness. It is a realization that these protest songs can often amount to little in the way of actual, systemic change.
How ironic then that Young covers Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” This song, along with all the other protest songs on the album, are reflective of the fact that little has actually changed since Young first rose to popularity. You can hear this disappointment in Young’s voice, the voice of a man who seems to have lost faith in the ways of the past. Young seems devastated that, despite the best efforts of artists such as himself and Dylan, nothing has fundamentally changed.
Even the harmonica on “Southern Man” deepens the metatextual sadness of the record. The context around the album, Young’s role in the music industry and his gloomy vocals and guitar create an atmosphere of defeat, a standard-bearer who realizes the standard he bears is not worth bearing. It is directionless and vague and confused. “Little Wing” is the same way, a fading song that dissolves out of existence. It knows it will be forgotten.
The saddest part about The Times is the way it betrays its frankness. It is plain-spoken and honest, as if Young is sitting in the same room as the listener, playing guitar for them. But this raw, intimate experience is brought to the listener exclusively by Amazon Music. What could have been a pleasant, personal afternoon album becomes another cog in exactly the kind of corporate machine protest music is meant to be a protest against. It is a Greek tragedy, sorrow and distress amplified by a system that is either apathetic, ambivalent or actively malevolent. It is the tragedy of the times.