April 18, 2002

Are You Serious?

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I had a very strong urge to never listen to this album. Maybe it was the lame, nationalistic cover art. Maybe it was the reams of bad press or maybe it’s just that, of classic and well-respected artists, none has had a longer and more uneven career than Neil Young. This is a man capable of writing songs that would surely rank among the best ever, as well as songs that are just unlistenably bad.

Therefore, this album comes off as somewhat surprising — not nearly as bad as many have said. Are You Passionate? actually somewhat outdoes Young’s most recent studio outing, 2000’s Silver & Gold. From the very first track, it’s evident that this album is going in a different direction than usual. Booker T. and the MGs, who back Young on 10 of these 11 tracks, lay down a soulful groove, complete with rolling organ and a chorus of backup singers.

The music is relaxed throughout, with the exception of occasional outbursts of Young’s distinctive guitar. “Mr. Disappointment” opens with the instantly recognizable slow burn of a heavily distorted guitar chord. Between the corny verses (further ruined by Young’s lame spoken-word delivery), his red-hot chords seem to be building towards a flaming solo that, disappointingly, never comes.

For most of the album, Young and his cohorts stay fairly close to this formula. The slow music makes for a very understated and relaxing record. “When I Hold You in My Arms” is, as the title suggests, a true romantic ballad, with swirling keyboards, and deliberate guitar slowly building and then declining in gentle dynamics.

The one exception to this sound is “Goin’ Home,” a rocker on which Young’s old compadres, Crazy Horse, replace Booker T. The song is exactly what you’d expect from Young with Crazy Horse: raw, ferocious guitars and primal drums coupled with lyrics about Custer’s last stand. It’s a bit out-of-place in the midst of the Stax Volt lovefest that is the rest of this album, but it’s nevertheless an enjoyable moment.

As strong as the music is throughout this album, Young manages to screw it all up with the lyrics. These are easily the worst words Young has ever penned — and this is a man with a long and storied career of writing sappy love songs. On “Mr. Disappointment,” Young speak-sings in an uncharacteristic deep voice: “where did all the feelings go?/ what about that happy glow?/ was that so long ago/ when we were first in love?” And “Let’s Roll,” a well-intentioned but musically trite tribute to Todd Beamer (one of the passengers who helped take Flight 93 out of terrorist control on 9/11) is brought even lower by over-the-top lyrics like, “we’re going after Satan/ on the wings of the dove.” Was that taken from one of Bush’s speeches about the “axis of evil?”

But “Mr. Disappointment” and “Let’s Roll” aren’t great songs to begin with; what’s even more embarrassing is when Young’s dismal lyrics drag down an otherwise fine piece of music. The musically excellent ballad “Quit (Don’t Say You Love Me)” is ruined by lyrical insights like, “hey baby, I’m your man/ I know I treated you bad/ but I’m doing the best I can.”

Overall, this is yet another minor let-down in the Young catalogue. It’s better than his worst (Everybody’s Rockin’, anyone?), but it comes nowhere close to his peak works like Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. If it weren’t for the sappy-beyond-belief lyrics, I’d recommend it to anyone; as it is, hardcore Neil fans will probably want this. Everyone else, wait a few more years, and the Young cycle will probably come back around to greatness.

Archived article by Ed Howard