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Are You Trying?
Neil Young: Are You Passionate?
Posted: April 14,
Kevin Forest Moreau
Neil Young's output has always been spotty. For every Everybody Knows This
Is Nowhere or Harvest, there's an Everybody's Rockin' or
Landing On Water. In this way he's the musical analog to Clint Eastwood, a
revered elder statesman of his form who's capable of great and affecting work (Unforgiven)
but is also just as likely to pander to the masses with a Dirty Harry retread or
ride around in a pickup truck with Sondra Locke, a simian and a foul-mouthed
Ruth Gordon. To Young's credit, Are You Passionate? isn't a career
misstep on the order of Every Which Way But Loose -- it's not as
aggressively and defiantly unremarkable as some of his early '80s efforts. But
despite a laudable sense of ambition, neither is it anywhere close to the
high-water marks of Harvest or Rust Never Sleeps.
For Passionate, Young takes an interesting tack, hooking up with the
legendary Booker T. and the MGs and attempting a full-on soul album. This is the
first problem: Young is never as effective a songwriter when he's playing
musical chameleon, attempting his "take" on a particular style or genre. Sure
enough, throughout Passionate he sounds like nothing so much as a man
trying to make a soul record. The opening "You're My Girl" is a perfect example:
It's a by-the-numbers love song whose sentiments and tempo seem copied from
hundreds of better songs, a remarkable simulation without any of the creativity
or fire of the real thing it attempts to simulate.
The second problem is a bit more pronounced: For a soul record recorded with one
of the tightest and rightly-acclaimed outfits in history, Passionate
lacks a disturbing amount of soul. Lacks -- dare we say it? -- passion. If it
weren't for the liner notes, you'd be hard-pressed to even detect the MGs'
presence. Heck, co-producer Donald "Duck" Dunn made a more lasting impact in the
first Blues Brothers movie. All of the songs on Passionate rumble along
with the same half-hearted groove, one pleasant but indistinct mid-tempo number
flowing into the next.
That numbing sameness does have one advantage, however: It saves "Let's Roll,"
Young's response to the September 11th terrorist attacks, from outright
awfulness. Throughout his career Young has sought to replicate the timely
resonance of "Ohio," sometimes striking gold ("Rockin' in the Free World") and
other times striking out (the Kurt Cobain eulogy "Sleeps With Angels"). And at
first, "Let's Roll" seems headed for the latter category, beginning with the
ominous chord that opens the song. The lyrics try to stretch the thin conceit
(the famous words Todd Beamer uttered before helping thwart the hijackers of the
jet over Pennsylvania) with lines like "I got to put the phone down / and do
what we gotta do." But thankfully, the proceedings never spiral all the way down
into I-can't-believe-it-what-was-he-thinking territory, thanks to the loping,
decidedly anti-climactic backing track, indistinguishable from just about any of
the others here.
There are some ideas on Passionate that, if properly fleshed out, might
have made (and might still yet make) interesting songs, notably the challenging
title track and the searching "Two Old Friends," which features a conversation
with the Almighty. But there's no escaping the fact that while his contemporary
Bob Dylan is enjoying a career resurgence, Young himself is headed down one of
his occasional career-stalling detours. Are You Passionate? could have
been -- ought to be -- a raging demand, a call to look within ourselves and
assess our priorities. Instead, with this oddly lackluster release Young lives
up to one of Passionate's song titles: "Mr. Disappointment."
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