It was not mere serendipity that caused two children of the '60s to come out with albums at around the same time this year. Their country needed them. The U.S. was at war. As songwriters they were impelled to find more productive uses for their time than just monitoring the death toll around the world. Their albums, however, were strikingly different in tenor and intent.For Neil Young, the "war on terror" was a call to arms. His weapon was, of course, his pen. Dipping it in bright red ink and flinging every subtle shade to the wind, he wrote song after protest song in record time to complete his album Living With War. The unambiguous title matches the driving beat of guitars and drums and the anthem-like simplicity of the lyrics. The buff-coloured CD cover (title stamped in black on slightly wrinkled brown paper resembling part of an official envelope) represents government and the bleakness of war quite effectively.But what are we to make of the cover of Paul Simon's album Surprise that has a baby looking straight into our eyes? Subtlety is the hallmark of Simon's verse, and he has been getting more enigmatic the older he grows. In his latest album, too, his poetry obscures as much as it reveals. He has never worn his politics on his sleeve. His personal life has always fed his art but his lyrics are rarely overt. This Simon ain't simple. You've got to decode the man."I registered to vote today," begins his "Sure Don't Feel Like Love." "Felt like a fool." And much later, after talking about conscience sticking to the sole of his shoe and the chemistry of crying, "I remember once in August 1993, I was wrong, and I could be wrong again." Is it an oblique reference to the presidential elections? Your guess may be better than mine. In "How Can You Live In The Northeast" you can understand the atmosphere that drives him to say: "Names and religion come just after date of birth. Then everybody gets a tongue to speak, and everyone hears an inner voice... If the answer is infinite light, why do we sleep in the dark?" No obvious messages.
Young's lyrics, on the other hand, are as plain as the proverbial pikestaff. "Let's impeach the president for lying," he sings. And "I'm living with war in my heart and my mind." Remember that this was the Neil Young who debuted at the Woodstock festival with Crosby, Stills and Nash. The memory of those stormy anti-Vietnam war protests must have spurred him on to write against the wars that his country is waging today.The Paul Simon of yore was the Paul Simon who wrote Duncan and An American Tune, who gave us a coast-to-coast-in-a-Greyhound-bus view of his country through his musical vignettes. "We've all come to look for America," he sang. But that optimistic vision is not in evidence in his latest album. This is a world-weary Simon grasping at tenuous hope, looking for peace within himself as well as in the external world.The best way to listen to Young's album is to gather a few Bush-hating friends, open a few beers, and sing along lustily to "Looking for a Leader": "Looking for somebody young enough to take it on, clean up the corruption and make the country strong." (Which country are we talking about now?!) Practically every song has a sing-along chorus, although after a while the beat becomes tiresome.
I defy you to sing along to the songs in Simon's album. The tunes do not stick in your mind even after repeated listening. It is as though after composing the lyrics he opened his mouth and sang at random, taking the tunes down whichever blue alley the words might lead them. Most of it is chanted or half-spoken, and melody is rare. (The perky "Beautiful," the hopeful and tuneful "Father and Daughter" and the fleeting chorus of "Outrageous" stand out like oases.) What a contrast to his Graceland album where every single song stayed on your lips even though you didn't fully understand the words! Graceland saw him at the pinnacle of his musical abilities but then, all he had to do was dip his hands into the honey pot that is Africa and come out with gold (okay, with a bit of the bayou thrown in, the irresistible Cajun stomp).A song on Young's album that reminds you of the younger Young (a la "Heart of Gold" and "Wild Horses") is "Roger and Out." The finale is a straightforward and rousing version of "America the Beautiful" sung by a 100-member chorus. It cocks a snook at the loony right and reclaims the lovely song from the Bible-thumping "patriots". Simon hints at this sentiment in his "Wartime Prayers": "People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars... Wartime prayers in every language spoken, for every family scattered and broken."Words can be a means of spelling out public fury. Equally, they can be a vehicle for expressing private angst. Take your pick.C.K. MEENA
Neil Young: Living with Fear, Reprise/Wea, CD, Rs.395