Red Hot Chili Peppers
[The Mail On Sunday, 2006]
LIVING WITH WAR
RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
THE FIRST QUESTION that comes to mind about Living With War is, why hasn't anyone done this sooner?
The thought evidently hasn't escaped Neil Young. “I was waiting for someone to come along, some young singer 18 to 22 years old to write these songs and stand up,” he says of the anti-Iraq War protest album he composed in a fortnight and rush-released this week. “I waited a long time. Then I decided that maybe the generation that has to do this is still the 60s generation. We're still here.”
The trouble is, few musicians of any generation command the artistic capital or the public goodwill to carry it off, even if they did want to try. Young has got away with an awful lot in his time, but he's earned that leeway.
It's hard to approach Living With War the way one might any other album. Indeed, it's telling that one thinks of “approaching” it at all, rather than simply listening to it. Its timely nature and polemical intent make it as much a public confrontation, a roar of righteous outrage, as a pop record. A rasping, frayed, wiry folk-rock record, to be specific - rough-edged even by Young's illustriously tatterdemalion standards.
There's no longer a context for an album like this, as there would have been four decades ago - something else Young implicitly acknowledges when he likens it to the work of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Certainly, the overtly political Ochs makes for a valid comparison; but it bears little resemblance to any but the earliest of Dylan's work. Except, that is, for Flags of Freedom, which not only namechecks Dylan in its lyric, but so often echoes the near eponymous Chimes of Freedom that you can only take it to be a tribute.
The surprising thing about Living With War is that several of the songs stand up in their own right. Its full-blooded bluntness makes it superior to Greendale (2003), Young's overworked, allegorical attempt to cover similar ground. Oddly, it's more of a piece with last year's return to form, Prairie Wind, as naked in its indignation as that album was in its sentimentality. While nothing here seethes with quite the condensed fury of classic Young broadsides Ohio and Southern Man, there's still plenty of venom and vim about After The Garden, Shock & Awe and Families. The swiftness of their creation, which inevitably gives some tracks here a rushed feel, has made them loose and urgent
But the key moment of Living With War is far from its best song. Let's Impeach The President is a ferocious singalong litany of charges - moral, political, constitutional - levelled directly at the person of George W Bush. This is genuinely hazardous stuff for a major showbusiness figure in a country where president and presidency are widely conflated, and a climate where dissent is painted as treason.
So it's no wonder that Young closes the album with a choral take on America The Beautiful, effectively draping himself in the flag in an effort to reclaim patriotism from the scoundrels and from the Patriot Act. Young, whose sympathetic words for Ronald Reagan were misrepresented as blanket approval, who remains (at least until now) equally treasured by rednecks and radicals, possesses a unique platform. As so often in the past, he has made unwieldy but exhilarating use of it.
Inadvertently, Living With War tells us more about pop than it does about politics. It's very remarkability, and the fact that Young felt impelled to step into the breach, shows how the once intuitive link between mutiny and music has withered - Live8 and fashionable causes notwithstanding. It's one thing to champion a movement; quite another to be part of its fabric. In terms of that old paradox, the fight for peace, Living With War may prove less a call to arms than a farewell to them.
It feels all the more workaday, then, to turn to Red Hot Chili Peppers. This despite the blockbuster status for which whopping two-CD set Stadium Arcadium is destined. It seems unlikely now that RHCP will ever rekindle the vivid clamour of 1991's Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik. They have settled for tuneful stolidity, and here they provide a glut of it, to as high a standard as they've yet attained. Their vast public will be delighted with it. I would be, too, if tuneful stolidity were my idea of fun. Certainly, this album requires little of the drudgery that some of its predecessors have put me through. Best, perhaps, to let RHCP and their fans get a very large room, and tiptoe discreetly away.
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