Neil Young and Promise of the Real, ‘The Visitor': Album Review
Neil Young's first two collaborations with Promise of the Real, the band led by Willie Nelson's son Lukas Nelson, sounded sorta like tethered Crazy Horse albums. But without the free-fall unpredictability of Young's most reliable backing group of the past five decades, 2015's The Monsanto Years and the following year's embellished live record, Earth, came off like more structured attempts to capture Young at his most unhinged and plugged in.
Their third record, The Visitor, is more of the same, and like The Monsanto Years and last year's Peace Trail, it's a political one, charged through a filter of recent news. And after a year of living under Donald Trump's presidential promise of making America great again, Young is fired up, or, as he says in "Fly by Night Deal," "My blood is boiling."
"I'm a Canadian, by the way, and I love the U.S.A.," he sings on the album's opening track, "Already Great." "You’re already great/You’re the promised land, the helping hand/No wall, no hate, no fascist U.S.A." And that's pretty much The Visitor's template, surged through electric guitars and breathless vocals with some detours along the way, like the softer, acoustic "Almost Always," which doesn't stray from its anti-Trump message: "I'm living with a game-show host who has to brag and has to boast about tearing down the things that I hold dear."
In a way, The Visitor is told through the voice of a stranger visiting a land uprooted by turmoil and dissent. Its most straightforward and tougher songs, the ones where Young and Promise of the Real plug in and sound the most like Crazy Horse, fit this perspective better than the unplugged or weirder tracks, like the eight-minute "Carnival," which flits between south-of-the-border whimsy and circus waltz, "Diggin' a Hole," a lazy blues that everyone seemed to lose interest in about halfway through, and the all-over-the-place "Children of Destiny" that includes an over-the-top singalong chorus ready for the Broadway stage.
When Young stays grounded, musically and to the point of his album's theme, he's better suited to survey the political and cultural landscapes of the past year or so. Peace Trail took a similar broad approach and amounted to an angry old man raging against the headlines he saw online every day; The Visitor is more focused and tempered. Even the nine-minute closer "Forever," a sprawling acoustic parable, tries to find a solution to the mess we're in. "I really want to make a difference," Young sings over one of the album's most delicate and effective musical foundations.
The release of Hitchhiker, a collection of timeless acoustic songs recorded in 1976, earlier in 2017 was a reminder that Young, at his peak, could walk into a studio, lay down a dozen tracks over the course of a day and make a great album that would sit on the shelf for 40 years. His recent output -- The Visitor marks his 12th album in the past decade -- hasn't been so flawless. Le Noise, a mostly experimental LP from 2010, and 2012's Psychedelic Pill, his most recent record with Crazy Horse, are the two keepers from the era.
The Visitor once again finds Young somewhat stuck in a place with good intentions but not the vision to see the project's bigger picture. Yes, the country is a mess right now. And no, we don't need a reckless egomaniac pulling us apart even more. Simple messages for not-so-simple times. A real visitor to this land would probably uncover more depth and complexity to the issues at hand. He'd also most likely interpret Young's take on it as what it is: tossed-off commentary on our times that will seem quaint by the next election cycle.