The world record that Neil Young sings about on his so-named 42nd studio album isn’t one that anyone’s likely going to want to lay claim to or take credit for. Climate change, dirty water, air the color of charcoal, soil that won’t sustain life, and the incessant momentum of human greed have been occupying the elder artist’s mind, seemingly to the exclusion of anything else.
Songs like “After the Gold Rush” and “Natural Beauty” that concern the delicate balance between nature and human pursuits have featured in Young’s music almost from the beginning of his career, but in the last decade or so, what was once an occasional subject that his work touched on has become something of a singular obsession. Recent songs like “Mother Earth” and “Who’s Going to Stand Up” were strident, uncompromising rallying cries that urged people to do something about the state of the world before it’s too late. As much as many of his listeners probably agree with what Young was singing about, many of these recent environmental songs come off as nothing more than angry slogans. Pure blistering passion, without art and melody, can be a bitter pill to swallow, and this may be something that Young considered when crafting World Record.
What’s different about the songs on World Record is a sense of resignation that inevitably gives way to a wistful nostalgia about the way things were. On “I Walk With You (Earth Ringtone),” Young expresses his gratitude at having lived so long and witnessing yet another autumn’s fallen leaves. Simple and direct, it’s a lovely and effective tune that expresses far more in a few well-chosen words than he has in the whole of many of his recent albums.
The songs on World Record, produced by Rick Rubin, who seems to have stood completely out of the way to let Young do his thing, alternate between piano-driven sing-alongs like “Love Earth” — played on an antique instrument that evokes abandoned prairie church basements — and lengthy feedback-drenched excursions such as the 15-minute electric opus “Chevrolet” that clearly demonstrate Young isn’t coasting on his chops and hasn’t lost his edge.
Young is in very good voice and he plays with sensitivity and a sense of innovation throughout World Record. Even though he’s not composing conventional songs these days as much as he’s conveying drifting thoughts and elusive impressions he can’t quite articulate, as a whole, the album is more cohesive and enjoyable to listen to than many of his other recent outings. World Record doesn’t have an obvious single and it’s almost impossible to imagine a commercial radio station finding a song from it to play on air, but mainstream acceptance has never really seemed to interest Neil Young very much.
World Record offers a perfect reflection of where Neil Young’s at today. He’s drawn a line in the sand and continues to make music that he deeply cares about, regardless of what anyone else thinks. More than 60 years into his career, he is still a singular and uncompromising musical force.
World Record is out Nov. 18 via Reprise Records.