January 5, 2012 / Perspective
Pastoral memoirs are not a genre in great demand. They don’t tend to make it …
April 2, 2006
My introduction to the concept of protest music was a bootleg cassette that featured Pearl Jam covering the Bob Dylan staple “Masters of War.” This song was originally included on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his first important album, released in 1963, close to the beginning of the Vietnam War. For the last thirty years, pop culture has been nearly void of protest songs, not to mention whole protest albums. However, in the last few years, there have been more and more artists using their music as a platform for protest, bands as disparate as Pearl Jam and the Dixie Chicks. Most recently there has been a near-rash of concept albums about George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. One is Neil Young’s record Living With War and another The Flaming Lips’ At War With the Mystics.
From the beginning of Living With War, it’s clear that Neil Young is up to his old tricks. The guitars are crunchy and distorted. The rhythm section is driving and up tempo. His melodies are catchy and the back vocals perfect. Not quite as strange or compelling as any performance of Crazy Horse, this ensemble is still coherent and unified in its course. There are even some typical Neil Young lyrics—solid imagery and metaphors that are neither mind-blowing nor obtuse. One example shows up in the first song “After The Garden,” in which Young asks the question of what people will do or say after the “garden is gone.” This song may be the one beacon of lyrical taste throughout the whole record. From there, Young commences with songs so poetically incompetent they make a die-hard liberal like myself blush with embarrassment.
In the “Restless Consumer,” Young rejects the American mentality of spending with the lines “Don’t need no nausea/Don’t need no side effects like diarrhea or sexual death/Don’t need no more lies.” The silliness continues with the most obvious example “Let’s Impeach the President.” Any words used in communicating this message are superfluous after the title. Neil not only rants on through six poorly argued verses, he includes live clips of George Bush making a jackass of himself in public. The technique of incorporating news sound bites into singles is one that became clichéd and tactless in the 90’s through its use by the band Live in their tribute to the Oklahoma City bombing victims and by Sarah McLaughlin in “I Will Remember You” after the Columbine shootings.
The Flaming Lips album At War With the Mystics offers a greater variety of lyrical and musical devices. “Mr. Ambulance Driver” is a perfect case in which multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd creates a colorful sonic palate for singer Wayne Coyne’s story of waiting for the ambulance after a car wreck. Coyne’s greatest talent is using mundane instances to express broader ideas and questions. He pleads for the ambulance driver to tell him that “for everyone that dies someone new is born.” In the context of what is actually a protest of a war in which my comrades are dying, this becomes the most beautiful sentiment expressed throughout either of these records. Coyne’s hint at reincarnation is an attempt to wade through the existentialist murk of his own philosophy for some spiritual light at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, a few bad apples almost ruin this batch. Songs like “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,” “Free Radicals,” “Haven’t Got a Clue,” and “The W.A.N.D.” may exhibit a few shining moments of musical clarity but more striking is Coyne’s lack of restraint in discussing political topics without much originality.
Musically, these albums should please their respective fans in that they each accomplish something that the fans expect. Neil Young fans generally want Neil Young to sound like he did in the old days and Flaming Lips fans expect Coyne and crew to do something that hasn’t been done before. True to their charges, Young has made an album that sounds like Crazy Horse and the Lips have made one with a beautiful array of textures and sounds. But these are only first impressions. After about five listens of each, the messages will start to overpower the music and proceed to eat away at one’s sense of taste.
Songs with strong messages like these are like visits from parents. Every once in a while there is a really good one for about four minutes, but after an hour, it can get pretty annoying.
The more I grew in my knowledge of Bob Dylan’s music the more I realized that Dylan is not a protest singer in the least bit. He is a songwriter who, among thousands of songs he has written, has a handful that address war. But most of my time spent listening to those albums is spent trying to figure out what in the world he’s talking about at all, and that’s probably what makes them interesting. Somewhere between their last albums and the new ones, Neil Young and Wayne Coyne began to care a little more about what they were saying than how they said it, and that’s where I find a conflict of artistic integrity, especially for these postmodern artists. The Neil Young that everyone loves is not a Neil Young with a message. He is a Neil Young with two primary feelings — longing for women and hate for women.The moment he starts to care about things besides himself, he’s just not that good.
The case is similar for Wayne Coyne and the Flaming Lips. However, Coyne at his top form is a bit more profound. He’s best when he asks questions and leaves the answers alone. His art is compromised when he takes sides, the lamest example being “Every time you state your case it makes me want to punch your face.” It would have been more profound for the Lips to make a concept album that asks the question “Is war good or can it result in good?” One gets the feeling that Coyne is afraid to leave that answer up to the listener for those who would disagree with his opinion. The fact that he even has opinions scares me that he’s losing his edge—my attraction to humanist art is in its ability to believe a little bit in everything. The result is an album in which brilliant instrumentals work as fillers for cheesy space-dance tunes that are supposed to project the power of a strong message. Unfortunately the power of the message is lost in the campy delivery.
There are ways to address war with degrees of artfulness. In the Wilco song “War on War,” Jeff Tweedy sings the Zen-shaded chorus “You have to learn how to die if you wanna be alive.” Ozzy Osbourne uses dark spiritual imagery in the Black Sabbath song “War Pigs” when he describes generals controlling their soldiers “just like witches at black masses.” In the aforementioned Dylan song “Masters of War” he turns to a hyperbolic religious undertone as he concludes “Even Jesus would not forgive what you do.” While Young and Coyne seem content in their visceral reactions, Dylan, Tweedy and even Ozzy Osbourne feel the need to connect the gross concept of war with other things that are inherently human; in these cases, spirituality. By doing this, rock stars can have a strong message that is enlightened but keep their visceral edge (this is why they are poets for everyday people). The earlier versions of Young and Coyne might have done this by using colorful drug imagery or songs about the loneliness of death but they whine less subtly here with theses that ultimately boil down to “George Bush is crazy.” If they were Republicans with this sense of taste, the title of any one of these albums might be “These Colors Don’t Run.”
In the defense of the Flaming Lips, the title of the album is not Bush is Crazy—it’s At War With the Mystics. This at least leaves something to the imagination. In the defense of Neil Young, he is redeemed by a few things. In the album closer “Roger and Out” he sings “We were laughin’ all the way/That’s when we named it the hippie highway/ I still call it that today” as if he sincerely wishes those days were at hand. In this way, Young’s whining becomes almost comfortable, like every time a father talks about the past, and how things were better back when he was a kid. The guitar riffs are the other saving grace for “Living with War.” That classic Neil Young sound is perhaps even more comforting and familiar to me than any likenesses to my father he might display. It is here that I realize that if I am to hold Neil Young to the standard of playing rock music like a meathead, I must hold myself to that same standard in listening and my conclusion becomes this: At War With the Mystics sounds really pretty and Living With War rocks pretty hard.
The lines “Oh lonely me,” “I am lonely but you can free me,” from After The Gold Rush; “She’s so fine, she’s in my mind, I hear her calling” from Harvest; and “I could be happy the rest of my days with a cinnamon girl” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
The lines “A man needs a maid” from Harvest; “It’s the woman in you that makes you wanna play this game” and “Down by the river I shot my baby” from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.
The exceptions to the rule being “Southern Man” and “Alabama,” though, even here, his criticism has some sense of arrogance and therefore remains self-centered. It should be noted that the four albums Neil Young, After The Gold Rush, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and Harvest are so near perfect that he could be singing songs about excrement and I would still love them.
“Where does outer space end?” from Clouds Taste Metallic, “I don’t know how a man decides what’s right for his own life” from Yoshimi, and “Is it overwhelming to use a crane to crush a fly?” from Soft Bulletin.
John Totten is an editor for The Other Journal. He has a master of arts in counseling psychology from the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology.