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Are You Trying?

 

Neil Young: Are You Passionate?

Reprise, 2002

Rating: 2.0

 

 

Posted: April 14, 2002

By 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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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