TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. A concept album about fuel-efficient cars may not sound like the most promising idea for lively music, but it's what Neil Young has done with his new collection of songs called "Fork In The Road." Rock critic Ken Tucker says the concept worked.
(Soundbite of song "When Worlds Collide")
Mr. NEIL YOUNG (Musician): (Singing) Taking a trip across the USA, gonna see a lot of people along the way, from far and wide. Floating along on the Rio Grande...
KEN TUCKER: Neil Young begins "Fork In The Road" singing about how he's touring the country, playing music and driving, or playing driving music in every sense. The bulk of "Fork In The Road" was written in late 2008 during and between concert tour dates. The music has that deceptively dashed-off quality that's characteristic of younger-than-Neil hip-hop performers, punk-inspired rockers, and the rare musicians of Neil Young's generation who haven't settled into complacent craftsmanship.
(Soundbite of song "Just Singing A Song")
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) You can play my guitar, see where it goes. Send this song to a distant star, while the rhythm explodes. Just singing a song won't change the world. You can drive my car, see how it rolls, feel a new energy as it quietly grows. Just singing a song won't change the world.
TUCKER: Directly addressing that Neil Young generation I just mentioned, Young composes a tune with the refrain "Just singing a song won't change the world." In Young's current view from the highway, his 1959 Lincoln Continental retooled to run on alternative energy, peace and love has given way to pollution and the economy.
(Soundbite of song "Fuel Line")
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) My engine's running and the fuel is clean. She only uses it 'cause she's a machine. She don't need it, though, just to cruise around town. Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. The awesome power of electricity, stored for you in a giant battery. She runs so quiet, she's just like a ghost. Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. Keep filling that fuel line, keep filling that old fuel line. Fill her up.
TUCKER: Using blues structures and rock rhythms, Young manages to make almost poetry out of a lumpy couplet like, The awesome power of the electricity, stored for you in a giant battery. What sells this stuff is the inescapable feeling that Neil Young really does think the humble battery is, well, awesome.
(Soundbite of song "Johnny Magic")
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Johnny Magic had a way with metal, had a way with machines. One day in a garage far away, he met destiny in the form of a heavy metal Continental. She was born to run on the proud highway.
TUCKER: On a first listen, the music can sound repetitive. But pretty soon I realized that the pleasure I was getting from listening over and over lay in the fact that this is a jam album. Young and longtime collaborators such as the multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith blast out lots of noise in the manner of other underrated Neil Young albums, like 1974's "On The Beach." And its politics are better articulated than they were on more recent records like the 2006 "Living With War."
(Soundbite of song "Fork In The Road")
Mr. YOUNG: (Singing) Got a potbelly, it's not too big. Gets in my way when I'm driving my rig. Driving this country in a big old rig, things I've seen mean a lot.
TUCKER: In that title song, Young slips back and forth between the characters of a truck driver and a, quote, "big rock star." As the rock star, he sings, My sales have tanked but I still got you, thanks. Whether talking about gas tanks or stock market tanks, Young has made a first-rate album for the new economic policy, how it affects him, you, and the citizens he sees on the road. And as he advises, never take your eyes off the road.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor at large at Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Neil Young's new CD, "Fork In The Road." Coming up, we listen back to an interview with writer J.G. Ballard. He died yesterday at the age of 78. This is FRESH AIR.
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