What do you do if you are a 63 year old American musical legend, an inspiration to millions, who has been through just about everything it is possible to go through - both personally and politically? You keep doing what you do best and thankfully Neil Young is still doing that. On the surface, Fork In The Road is an automotive-themed concept album highlighting Young's own obsession with a project to create an alternative power supply for cars (the LincVolt project is using his own 1959 Lincoln Continental as a prototype) but it follows the blatant political objections of Living With War in a much more concise and direct way. Young has created a fairly ordinary garage rock (see what he did there?) album celebrating the world of the automobile and fused in some ironic commentary about the environmentally destructive pastime. This approach will ultimately divide fans and critics but knowing what Young is now dedicating his life to, it all makes sense. And this process has created a decent album.
To begin with a criticism, Fork In The Road does not start well. Opener When Worlds Collide is a mess of muddy guitars, laboured drums and tuneless vocals - Young has never had the most stable of voices but some the world's greatest poets have questionable vocal ability, Dylan to name one. In the second verse, he seems to lose his voice all together and go off on a ramble but the song does set the scene for a great American road trip: "Cruising down Route 66 where the guys and gals used to get their kicks...in the old days...", he reminisces, followed by "Running low on the people's fuel, riding in something that's really cool... on the proud highway". There are always two sides to Young's lyrics. Fuel Line continues this trend, as a simplistic strained old-fashioned blues song. It falls flat as shouts of "Fill her up!" are limply delivered but behind this crass exterior is a genuine message with some more great lines, including "She's not the car that she used to be, she wants to take you and she wants to take me, into the future - that's her destiny. Young's passion eventually comes through with twenty seconds to go.
Just Singing A Song is a distinct improvement. From the outset the guitars shine with a vibrancy last heard on Sleeps With Angels, before Young adds his own unique vocal melody. The message here is simple: actions not words. It is very much an ensemble piece with glorious choral backing vocals adding depth and softness to the spiky guitar work. Johnny Magic pulls everything together in a vaguely comedic style with a lament for Jonathan Goodwin, the mechanic working with Young on the LincVolt project. Young's reference to Goodwin as 'a motor-head messiah' is faintly unnerving. Moving on, Cough Up The Bucks is superb as a meeting of styles and influences, from Young's pseudo-rapping (take note Bono!) to the shimmering guitars, into a delicately controlled rant asking where the money has gone. Young weaves in several characters for this story which is one of the most ambitious songs he has written, highlighting both the absurd selfishness of the situation, and his own vision with "...it's all about my dream...it's all about my world...".
Get Behind The Wheel is another steady blues track with more great backing from Young's band. You keep expecting another political motivated rant at any minute but it never happens. So this becomes a neat preacher-free interlude. The same could be said for Off The Road, at least in terms of pace. This proves that Young can rock out like a furious teenager but then slow things down. His voice is as good as it has ever been, coupled with fragile strings, only briefly getting heavy into the last minute. Hit The Road could be written by Nick Cave and would fit perfectly on Abattoir Blues / The Lyre Of Orpheus as a companion piece to Hiding All Away, thanks to wonderful backing vocals. This marks the start of the last and best trilogy of songs on the album. The mood changes to serious for Light A Candle, which pays homage (intentional or not?) to Chris Rea's Road To Hell. Another superb vocal of hope and optimism from Young instantly captures the attention, followed by more great guitars.
Fork In The Road closes with the title track, a near six minute rant with Young as another character, marked with a deep lower-register vocal. The song is near-perfect country-folk-rock, full of the rambling of an old, but wise, mind. "I got hope...but you can't eat hope" is followed by "There's a bailout comin' but it's not for me...It's for all those creeps watching tickers on TV". Young lays on the irony way too thick and the wires get crossed - telling us "Download this...it sounds like shit". It is a bizarre turn. Things pick up with "Keep on blogging 'til the power goes out". As the vocals get deeper and more sinister, he creates an apocalyptic world in which the only thing that matters is missing the 'Raiders game' when your flat-screen gets repossessed. And then comes the money shot: "...it's for all those creeps hiding what they do". With that, the album is over. What starts as an optimistic environmentally-friendly road trip, in which he will prove to the world that by ending America's dependency on oil there will be no more wars, now ends with the global financial crisis. Young is still tackling the small issues then...
Within all the greasy overall-wearing car-based metaphor is a real sense of reality; a finger firmly on the social and political pulse, like it has always been. It would be difficult to understand why Neil Young would do anything else than to comment on current times, particularly when the world is under the clouds of global economic crisis and impending threat. And there is no better muse than misery. While Springsteen has his head full of dreams, and Dylan is removing himself from the political lure, Young has his feet on solid ground, still toiling and campaigning for the common 'middle-American' man. The title of the album, and indeed the title track itself, represents a divided America with citizens faced with a choice of left or right...but at the same time it is the perfect analogy for convergence, as the old broken America of Bush makes way for the new historic vision of Obama. Whether Fork In The Road is remembered as a classic like After The Goldrush and Harvest is a matter of debate but it certainly is an album marking a point in history.
Fork In The Road may have been inspired by one idea but it has fuelled many more. (sorry it had to be done...)
-- CS (for The Music Magazine)