Last year’s Peace Trail was a classic Neil Young bait and switch: a collaboration with a veteran session drummer, Jim Keltner, that seemed to promise a return to the form of his eternal albatross, 1972’s Harvest, but turned into something considerably weirder and woolier. Now, with The Visitor, Young has delivered an album that appears at first glance like a retread of 2006’s patchy, Bush administration-bashing Living with War, only to reveal unexpected layers of ambition and nuance throughout.
The Visitor finds Young tilting again at the political windmills of the present day: namely, Donald Trump and the grim parody of the American dream that the president represents. Like Living with War, as well as 2009’s electric-car paean Fork in the Road and 2015’s agribusiness-targeting The Monsanto Years, the album’s topicality is nothing if not excessive. The opening track, “Already Great,” is a cloying play on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, while the shambling “When Bad Got Good” re-appropriates the president’s Clinton-baiting “lock her up” rallying cry. There’s nothing inherently wrong with ripping songs from the headlines, of course; Young has been doing that for almost 50 years, ever since “Ohio” memorialized the Kent State massacre barely a month after the incident. But Young’s later attempts at capturing the zeitgeist have whiffed more often than they’ve hit.
The album’s success, then, lies in how it consistently plays to Young’s more endearing eccentricities. “Already Great” may stem from a banal premise, but Young somehow makes it work, lurching from the plaintive hook into a gritty, propulsive crescendo, all fueled by a sampled chorus of protesters chanting, “No wall/No ban/No fascist U.S.A.” “Fly by Night Deal,” meanwhile, drops the sloganeering entirely to deliver a raw, excoriating monologue on the Dakota Access Pipeline, periodically interrupted by jagged slashes of guitar noise, and “Almost Always” is a shaggy-dog protest song about listening to birds and not having all the answers, set to an accordion and Young’s signature, wheezing harmonica. Few of these songs are trying to be anthems; instead, Young probes his own feelings, capturing something of the muddled anxiety, outrage, and bewilderment that is the Trump era’s dominant ambience.
Musically, Young is able to find his elusive sweet spot between the overindulgent and the merely ramshackle. Promise of the Real, his principal backing band since 2014, have proven themselves capable of channeling the addled boogie of Crazy Horse on tracks like “Diggin’ a Hole” but also stretching into more limber arrangements like the theatrical “Carnival.” At times, their reach exceeds their grasp: The syrupy strings-and-brass section of “Children of Destiny” shows that, even half a century after “A Man Needs a Maid,” Young still isn’t above a wildly incongruous over-arrangement. But his band’s flexibility and enthusiasm helps to mitigate these moments.
The Visitor comes with all the usual caveats of a latter-day Neil Young album: it’s idiosyncratic in construction and delivery; its lyrics shift between the poetically plainspoken and the awkwardly prosaic; and tracks like “Carnival” and “Forever” are minutes longer than they need to be. Listeners who’ve already given up on Young’s current output are unlikely to be lured back by anything here, but for those of us still following his uniquely meandering path—in and out of the proverbial ditch—it’s a ride well worth taking.