Ethanol has a cadre of lobbyists, farmers and bandwagon-riding Congressmen ready to do battle in the fields of Iowa. Despite these children of the corn beating the drum for domestic fuels, one man thought it wasn’t enough. One man saw a crowded field of social causes and American problems and, having tackled most of them in song, said, “Shit, I can pound out a few songs about green power. Why not?”
And so, Canadian-born countrified rocker Neil Young dedicated every song on Fork in the Road to biofuels. Sure, every song has a tinge of automobiles in it — and that comes with a good amount of nostalgia for the abundance of get-in-my-car-type songs — but the talk of electric engines, “people’s fuel” and green power is so numerous, the political message is obvious from the first track.
This is not an odd-sidestep for Young, as his prolific catalog almost necessitates the Old Man’s “I’ll write about whatever the hell I want” attitude, but for someone who started his career singing about ’60s counter-culture happenings — and was recently seen channeling that anger on Living with War with some general Bush-bashing — an album focused on green power seems more like a strange public service announcement than a call to arms.
The music itself is just what we’d expect from Young: country-fried blues with a side of his trademark warbling falsetto. Some of the tracks succeed in using that formula. “When World’s Collide” muses on some populist angst one would expect in an era of economic collapse, but the numerous chord and key changes actually make the structure the most interesting part about this song. Young gets rawer on “Fuel Line,” which starts out with distorted guitar pounding that brings a grimy, garage-rock feel to the bluesy harping on a change to electric cars. Yes, the message is occasionally heavy-handed, but the song still works.
Others, not so much. “Cough up the Bucks” is the closest Young will ever come to beatboxing as he repeats the title about 50 times between some generic questions about where the “revenue” went. Similarly monotonous is the Southern bar-rock toss off “Get Behind the Wheel,” which seems to be Young’s ham-fisted attempt to beam the pure free-wheeling energy of driving down the road.
But the problem with this album is that its multifaceted look at cars was obviously a work-in-progress that could have been condensed into a solid EP. You have the slow-burning lament of “Off the Road,” which follows up “Get Behind the Wheel” as if that song had been played on repeat for a cross-country jaunt and the driver decided to pen his tired rebuttal.
Oh, but don’t worry, because there’s a second-wind with “Hit the Road,” which actually coasts on a muscle car groove and works better than “Get Behind the Wheel” and “Hit the Road” by combining horsepower worship with tangential hint of the fuel concerns mentioned earlier on. Great, Neil. So why didn’t you just record that song and call it a day? Why did you need to record these other three songs and then make a single like the three-chord guitar write-off “Johnny Magic?” Especially when it’s “Mr. Chevrolet Goes to Washington” storyline is so sloppily unfurled that it makes me want to punch anyone from Wichita who even mentions the word “ethanol.”
This album is worth a listen if you can survive a drive in the ditch for about 18 minutes. Songs like the title track save it from obscurity by honing that everyman anger at bailouts and American excess. But when a great, new classic from Young like “Just Singing a Song” admits that “Just singing a song won’t change the world,” why does he spend so much time trying to do just that?
2 1/2 stars out of 5.