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Album Review

Grumpy Neil skids off the 'Road'

April 6, 2009
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Rock
Neil Young Fork in the Road
Reprise
ESSENTIAL "Johnny Magic"

Time was, the end of a decade would energize Neil Young to produce some of his best work. But skipping 1999 altogether seems to have messed up his mojo; "Fork in the Road" pretty much continues his recent trajectory rather than bringing the last 10 years to a head a la "Rust Never Sleeps" ('79) or "Freedom" ('89). Less rough around the edges than 2007's "Chrome Dreams II," "Road" is a similarly one-dimensional variation on the singer's Grumpy Uncle Neil mode. A semi-concept album revolving around eco-cars and the failing economy, it. . . You've already walked away, haven't you?

It's hard to fight that instinct. The familiar Crazy Horse spirit is still there in "Cough Up the Bucks" and in the title track, but Young gets bogged down with lyrics as clunkily earnest as "There's a bailout coming, but it's not for me" (from "Fork in the Road"). Worse, "Light a Candle" ruins a rare moment of quiet contemplation by embracing cliche with the opening line: "Instead of cursing the darkness, light the candle for where we're going."

Of course, it's never wise to count Young out, not with the grungy stomp of "When Worlds Collide" and the warm and welcoming "Off the Road." And recession-speak notwithstanding, "Johnny Magic" is a neatly buzzing thumper with an eye for detail somewhat reminiscent of "Powderfinger." But considering the social and political era that's just come to an end, "Fork in the Road" is a dud of a decade-closer. Then again, 2009's not over yet.

MARC HIRSH