Ya gotta love Ol' Shakey. Even moreso than fellow cantankerous classic rocker Bob Dylan, he goes where his muse leads him, everyone else be damned. Acoustic rock? Heavy rock? Country? Blues? Rockabilly? Unintelligible vocoders and synthesizers? He's done them all - and even been sued by his record company for not sounding like himself. It's a good thing that Neil has full artistic control, too. Imagine the pitch session for his latest album: "I want to do a concept record about my project to turn my 1959 Lincoln Continental into a mostly electric powered vehicle." (it's true! Click here.) "Oh, and also about America's crumbling financial situation." So with Neil Young, you can't predict what his next record will sound like - you just go along for the ride. In recent years, we've had the good (Prairie Wind, Living with War), and the bad (Are You Passionate?, Chrome Dreams II), so Fork in the Road must be the ugly - in both positive and negative ways. On one hand, the fuzzy, kick-ass rock music on some of the songs ("When Worlds Collide," "Get Behind the Wheel") recalls Neil's prime Crazy Horse days and pack real power, including Young's patented electric freak-outs. And even when a song is little more than the title repeated over and over ("Cough Up the Bucks") there's a great looseness to the players and proceedings - and just try to get that chorus out of your head. On the other hand, Neil is continuing his slide into simple and embarrassing lyrics and, well, there's only so much you can write about vehicles, even when you're comparing them to women ("She looks so good with her top down"). At times, the words flow with all the poetry of a technical instruction manual or advertisement Examples include "The awesome power of electricity/ Stored for you in a battery" and repeated "Fill 'er ups!" from "Fuel Line," or the "heavy metal Continental" from "Johnny Magic," written about Young's real-life project partner. Still, there's too much machinery in the music. Of the two softer songs, "Light a Candle" is a wonderful ballad full of irony-free positivity ("Instead of cursing the darkness/ Light a candle for where we're going/ There's something ahead worth looking for"). Young may tell us on another track "Just singing a song won't change the world," but on this gentle number, he makes it at least seem possible.
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The record's finale and title track has to be one of the weirdest entries in Young's entire catalogue. Ostensibly about a pot-bellied trucker, Young is soon ranting stream-of-consciousness style about the Iraq war, blogging, bailouts, iPods, flatscreen TVs and his own tumbling record sales over a repetitive blues groove. It shouldn't work at all, but it does (and the accompanying low, low-tech video is a hoot). So Fork in the Road is yet another mixed bag from America's favorite native Canuck singer-songwriter (sorry, Gordon Lightfoot). Which fork he takes next, of course, is anyone's guess. Timbaland, are you listening?