Neil Young and Pearl Jam Get Political … Again

    None-too-original newsflash: Bush is our generation’s Nixon. After a drunken night of bomb-dropping and bill-blowing, he awoke to find most of the future of his country — the youth — almost wholly against him, along with what increasingly seems like every other sane person. So, like Nixon, Bush is getting what he deserves from the country’s rock musicians: a long, noisy fuck you.

    Not surprisingly, though, it’s the slightly older cats who strut their political disses with the least-obnoxious style. The brilliant success of Green Day’s American Idiot may have turned the record industry on to the cash potential of fiery, three-chord polemics, but it wasn’t the last — or the best — word in Gen-Y Bush-bashing. Its genius was the way it bluntly implicated everyone it should have without coming off like a recorded batch of campaign slogans. Idiot used the best of two styles of political pop that a pair of newer records perfectly exemplify: Neil Young’s Living With War croons utterly literal rhetoric-rock from the glorious 1960s, while Pearl Jam’s self-titled punk-stomper screams a dark, personal tale of life in the Bush era.

    It doesn’t take many listens to notice that the first three songs on Young’s latest album all repeat the phrase, “Don’t need no [insert current political reality]” a bit stubbornly. Well, “After the Garden” uses “Won’t need no … ” instead, but to achieve the same rally-chant effect, which quickly wears itself out. As inconsequential as it may seem, the recycling of blue-collar syntax perfectly demonstrates the single-mindedness of Young’s project, which he wrote while recording and completed in two weeks. Characteristically, he’s not afraid of being almost embarrassingly frank, as even his song titles demonstrate: “Shock and Awe,” “The Restless Consumer,” “Let’s Impeach the President” and “Lookin’ for a Leader” practically announce a platform before we’re finale’d with the blush-inducing sop of “America the Beautiful.” Nearly all the songs feature his “Chorus of 100,” who dismiss any ambiguity about Young’s intention that this is an album of anthems. Yet despite its stubborn literality, Living With War is a pretty damn good batch of anti-Bush/war/etc. fist-shakers, beefed up by the omnipresent snarl of Young’s favorite Les Paul.

    The gritty bar-chord and vocal sparring on Pearl Jam’s recent so-called “return to form” seldom dips into Young’s brand of political directness. Even when it does, as in lead single “Worldwide Suicide,” Eddie Vedder’s lyrics channel their politics into poetics, sending them deeper to the heart by staying more true to the form. Pearl Jam resists by illustrating, not preaching, which elevates songs like “Army Reserve” out of tiring, familiar rhetoric: “She can feel this/ War on her face/ Stars on her pillow/ Folding in darkness/ Begging for slumber.” Vedder’s maxims are mostly tacked to a bristling wall of Seattle grit, grinding midtempo boom-chink against caustic electric chords for a fittingly stark desert. This new intensity has no time for the avant asides that mark most of their previous work.

    The differing approaches meet in their dedication to a single message — the unsuitability of the current social and political realities for a free and meaningful life. In the end, their similarity in vigor and outlook — not surprising, given the two legends’ past relationship — make for an essential take on the world (and rock music) today no less significant than American Idiot’s. If anyone ever forgets how the sane half of the country viewed Bush, Living With War and Pearl Jam will make great reminders.

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