It’s a testament to Neil Young’s talent—or maybe just his indelible personal style—that even his most far-fetched ideas are often reasonably entertaining. A rock-opera/lo-fi movie about environmental activism? An R&B homage with Booker T. & The M.G.s? A set of Iraq-specific anti-war anthems? None of these recent Young flights of fancy have exactly been winners, but neither are they completely devoid of the occasional catchy chorus, scorching guitar solo, or flash of oddball affability.
So it goes with Fork In The Road, a 10-song set that Young threw together to promote his interest in alternative automobile technology. The concept drives the record to an absurd degree. There are songs here about how “just singing a song won’t change the world,” but how it’s better to “light a candle” than curse the darkness, so Young is urging the powers that be to “cough up the bucks” to design environmentally friendly cars, because we’re at a “fork in the road.” This album is like a PowerPoint presentation at a local school board, set to cranked-up guitars and a shaky voice.
But oh, those cranked-up guitars! And oh, that shaky voice! Young is mostly in stripped-down, super-loud rocker mode on Fork In The Road, aided by cooing backup singers and ideas simple enough to lend themselves to memorable choruses. So while it may seem goofy for Young to write a song hailing biodiesel guru Johnathan Goodwin and his work retooling Young’s 1959 Lincoln Continental, “Johnny Magic” ends up being as raucously hooky a song as Young has written in years. And it’s hardly the only song on the record that outstrips its agit-prop premise. Fork In The Road clunks far too often, but tracks like the wistful electric ballad “Off The Road” and the gutter-funk anthem “When Worlds Collide” have a rusty charm, in part because they’re so guileless. Passion for a subject doesn’t automatically equate to great art, but a fired-up Young has always held his own kind of strange fascination.