To Neil Young -- a sometime folksinger who was there at the first Woodstock, and who stood proudly with his peers against Vietnam -- "dj vu" may not be a strong enough description. Yet Young, like so many other artists who have addressed socio-political issues, has been remarkably quiet over the past few years. His first reaction to September 11 was "Let's Roll," a proud if somewhat ham-handed tribute to the passengers who brought down United Flight 93. But he followed that with the strange concept album Greendale, and then last year's celebrated Prairie Wind, a return to Harvest-era folk and introspective songwriting that addressed the death of his father and his own brush with mortality and was, aside from a quick mention of 9/11 in "No Wonder," devoid of any suggestions that military, social or political conflict had overtaken our fair nation.
If Young was relying on a new generation of protest rockers to speak out, he was mistaken. Even the Rock Against Bush campaign to get out the vote in 2004, on two compilation CDs, yielded precious few songs that addressed the war in Iraq or any of the administration's other policies. Doesn't anyone remember the Reagan-era Let Them Eat Jellybeans?
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the relative silence. The Bush administration has confused important issues with doublespeak and manipulative language. (When "No Child Left Behind" actually means less funding for schools, we're beyond the Orwellian looking glass.) But cracks have begun to appear in the faade. When six decorated generals feel compelled to say that Iraq is a poorly planned disaster and a setback in the war on terror, people listen. And some of us still can't dispel that image of Condoleeza Rice casually admitting she'd had a report of a terrorist plot to fly commercial airliners into the World Trade Center on her desk months before 9/11. The entire Iraq scam seems to be unraveling. There are just too many inconsistencies, too many questions about human-rights violations abroad, the erosion of civil rights on the homefront, the bungled response to Katrina.
And, finally, the music troops appear to be mobilizing. In different circumstances, Springsteen's Seeger Sessions album might be considered just a tribute to a musical hero; in the current climate, it's a wake-up call. "We Shall Overcome" -- which is so much a part of our cultural fabric, it's hard to believe that someone wrote it, that it wasn't just handed down from on high -- means something to anyone whose lost a loved one to the war on terrorism or the wrath of Katrina. It brings to mind past struggles that have mobilized regular folks to stand up and fight for the greater good.
Mixing rock and politics remains a tricky business. Different artists have their own ways of dealing with current events, and it would be hard to find two more divergent roads to protest than the routes Pearl Jam and Neil Young take on their new albums. Young, the elder statesman and a veteran of such topical yet lasting songs as "Ohio" and "Rockin' in the Free World," tackles his subject head on in Living with War (Reprise), a Crazy Horsedriven album that posits the war in Iraq as its theme and goes as far as "Let's Impeach the President." Young's ire has been awakened: "Lookin' for a Leader" rocks as hard as it rants, and it leads into "Roger and Out," which makes a vivid connection between Iraq and Vietnam, and then a closing hymn, "America the Beautiful," sung by a choir. Yet as topical as the disc is (Barack Obama and Colin Powell are just two names Neil drops), there are songs here good enough to outlive the current administration, just as "Rockin' in the Free World" survived beyond the Reagan/Bush years.
Eddie Vedder, on the other hand, has struggled to reconcile his political views with his role in Pearl Jam. He may write most of the lyrics, but you get the sense the band members have agreed, at least tacitly, that their health depends on Vedder's keeping his political activities separate. And yet he's at his best as a songwriter when he gets his mind around an issue that matters -- when he's angry. His MO is to look to himself for answers, to dig through his tortured soul or use his powers of empathy to place himself in the shoes of, say, "Jeremy," in an effort to see the world from another's point of view.
He does both on Pearl Jam. And politics are a big part of what's gotten under his skin this time around. It works: Pearl Jam sounds like a band reborn on their first album for J Records, a disc driven by an urgency and a sense of purpose this band haven't harnessed in a decade or more. And though Vedder's less inclined than Young to point fingers, he comes right out and says what he means on the ominously titled first single, the searing but melodic "World Wide Suicide." "Medals on a wooden mantel," he sings in that clenched fist of a voice, "Next to a handsome face/That the president took for granted/Writing checks that others pay." The guitars of Stone Gossard and Mike McCready parry and feint until they coalesce on a hard, garage-rocking chorus that eventually gives way to an explosion of emotion from Vedder as he works himself up to a scream: "Looking in the eyes of the fallen/You got to know there's another, another, another, another, anotherÊway."
In the past, Pearl Jam have seemed happy paying tribute to their classic-rock heroes. Here, they play like a band possessed, slamming away with urgency behind Vedder, feeding a mix of melody and noise into the maelstrom, pulling back just enough for key lines like "And the solution?/Well, from me far would it be/But the delusion/Is feeling dangerous to me."
Much of Vedder's soul searching about the war is cryptic: you do have to read between the lines when he sings about walking on a tightrope over "moral grounds." But it doesn't take a doctorate to figure out the pensive "Army Reserve," as he puts himself in the head of a mother reassuring a daughter that daddy's safe while trying to convince herself that "Father is risking his life for our freedoms." It's one of the more poignant tracks, the moment at which Vedder turns anger into pathos and, like Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside Bush's Texas ranch, strips away the political to reveal the naked humanity of the issue. Young doesn't need, and neither does he attempt, anything along those lines in Living with War. His is a rousing political call to arms that invites you to join in on the chorus of "No more lies" as he reads down a list of wrongs, from coffins draped in American flags to Jihad to Madison Avenue wars. But both Vedder and Young are united, along with Springsteen, in their belief that music still has the power to change minds and, they hope, lives. It's a worthy leap of faith.