Neil Young's 'The Times' Is Timeless, and That's Why It's So Depressing
Published Sep 17, 2020It's weird (and sad) how timeless this is.
Hearing Neil Young sing some of his most politically charged songs, on his own, during a pandemic in 2020, is rather startling. Who has more fire in their belly than him? That he can sound as charged up as a 20-year-old, mad as all hell during a U.S. presidential campaign, but using a gentle register of his voice that somehow makes him sound like he means it more than he ever has, is remarkable.
Captured for Young and Darryl Hannah's Fireside Sessions (specifically, the "Porch Episode"), wherein he performed livestreams to soothe fans in the uncertain, early part of the ongoing COVID-19 isolation saga, the seven songs that make up The Times are stark and haunting. They could be intimate demos, never meant for anyone else to hear. But the resonance of classics, like "Ohio" (which condemned U.S. President Richard Nixon) and "Campaigner" (which, slyly, sympathized with him) were never going to be contained or locked down, even if we are.
Purposely chosen to compare Donald Trump with his most similar presidential counterpart (who famously insisted, "I am not a crook," when he really, really was one), these topical songs have only overstayed their welcome because their thematic inspirations have. America is really fucked up right now but Young, to make a point, draws a line back to a time when that country seemed just as politically fraught and fucked up (it wasn't, but it was still super bad).
He even sings us Bob Dylan's 1964 social and civil rights anthem "The Times They Are a-Changin'" as a hopeful gesture. It's telling that it's the first sign of labour for Young here, because, for all of our collective progress, MAGA has been successful in at least getting us to constantly ponder our vision of a world where it's still 1963. It's not like Young is singing this ironically, but it feels a little like it is.
Revising his own 2006 song "Lookin' for a Leader," in which he predicted President Barack Obama's ascent, Young takes aim at Trump's America, specifically highlighting its overt racism and decrying the whole of it. What better counterpart than one of Young's most outspoken and incendiary songs, "Southern Man." Goddamn, the crosses in this song have been burning since 1970, and so many of us chose to stop paying attention to them for 50 years. "How long, how long?" Young sings, and he sounds like he's bawling. Simply maddening, the relevance of a song like this one (and also its follow-up, "Alabama") felt slightly more historical as recently as four years ago.
Having finally issued Homegrown this year, some 45 years after it was recorded, Young wraps up The Times with that album's "Little Wing." Hannah makes a brief appearance in the middle of the performance, as Young lets the song succumb to its fragility. Within its weathered frame, is a central tenet of this EP — that there is always hope in an American election year: "Little wing, don't fly away / When the summer turns to fall / Don't you know some people say / The winter is the best time of them all?" (Amazon)