"There's a bailout coming, but it's not for me," sings Neil Young in a low, resigned grumble during the title tune to Fork in the Road. "It's for all those creeps watching tickers on TV."
It's a sobering if not obvious rumination. But the song is also a parting line, in essence, to a set of dour political snapshots framed by a truckload of automotive metaphors and composing perspectives (even the title song is sung from the viewpoint of a truck driver) as well as some of the mightiest rock 'n' roll Young has slapped on a record in ages.
To say that the album is deflating in tone shouldn't seem surprising. Young's finest recordings (Time Fades Away, On the Beach and Tonight's the Night) are also his bleakest. But those works — save for the Nixon-era guttersnipes running amok during On the Beach — were personal manifestos.
Fork in the Road, cut quickly in Crazy Horse-style fashion (but without Crazy Horse) after a North American tour last winter, is a diatribe for the ages. Its songs bemoan the failing economy (and those responsible for it), the environment and, in Singing a Song, the death of the very hippie dream Young seemed to champion for decades. "Just singing a song," Young, 63, muses in the tune's chorus, "won't change the world."
Unfortunately, neither will Cough Up the Bucks, which repeats its title in mantra-like verse over the stuttering scrapes of electric guitar. The like-minded, album opening When Worlds Collide, a rustic postscript to lost times and ideals, sounds downright poetic with its crunchy guitar hooks and an immediacy that harkens back to Young's forgotten 1996 album gem Broken Arrow. Then you realize this outlook on modern civilization is being viewed from a jail cell.
With the exception of the fish-out-of-water Light a Candle (the album's lone acoustic offering which sounds a tad too pretty for this rogues' gallery of a record), Fork in the Road offers a grey electric view of Young's brave old world. Here, the hero is an eco-savvy auto mechanic (Johnny Magic) and the subjects are hapless motorists discovering what a dead end life's highway has become.
On a lighter side — in terms of temperament, at least — is Potato Hole, an unexpectedly meaty outing by one of the instrumental architects of late '60s soul music, keyboardist Booker T. Jones. But Booker T. has no MGs this time. He instead pumps up and plugs in with Young as his chief guitar ally and the mighty Drive-By Truckers as his band.
There is still sleekness and warmth to Jones' organ playing. But Potato Hole establishes itself on the aptly titled Pound It Out, with Jones' ominous keyboard intro floating in a sea of guitar-fortified power chords. Warped Sister is the real treat, though. It's a tune as lyrical and wondrously constructed as any of Jones' MGs singles. But the guitar foundation, which is as tough as oak, only enhances the warm resonance of Jones' keyboard colors.
Hats off to the Truckers, too, for making Jones' conversion from the MGs to a big rig sound seem thoroughly natural. The keyboardist's musicianship still has soul to spare. But the horsepower now behind him has been jacked way, way up.