It took him a few months, but Neil Young, curveball artist, is pitching for peace, freedom, and all that good stuff in the wake of the attacks on America. Per his tradition, he’s also shaking off the signs and offering his own brand of remembrance. A political idealist in the early 1980s (he espoused diplomatic might on 1981’s Re-ac-tor and endorsed Reagan in 1984) and a fatalist by decade’s end (1989’s Freedom indicted Reagan’s failings), Young turns humbled realist on “Let’s Roll.” The song, which was released to radio last month and is available for streaming through Reprise Records’ Web site, is Young’s entry into the post-attack catharsis sweepstakes.
It assumes the voice of Todd Beamer, one of the men who scuffled with hijackers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field. It is not the world’s most poetic voice. “Let’s roll for freedom/Let’s roll for love/We’re going after Satan/On the wings of the dove,” Young sings in a closing verse that reads like one of President Bush’s brass-balls decrees. The lyrics are Neil Young bad—add that to the pop glossary.
And yet “Let’s Roll” is Neil Young brilliant. It begins with a blanket of electronic noise, which clashes with a ringing cell phone. Soon, the distortion becomes a slow-burning funk riff, anchored by a lead-heavy drumbeat. Young, backed in part by Crazy Horse compatriot Frank “Poncho” Sampedro and members of Booker T. & the MG’s, punctuates his groove with organ stolen from 1920s B-horror films. The predatory instrumentation and anguished vocals here drive the song’s main soliloquy: How would Young feel if he knew he was going to die but could prevent untold other deaths in the process? And is that necessarily the right course to take?
A terrifying predicament calls for a thundering guitar lick, but the awkward heroism here calls for only a tentative one. Young, obviously, is no stranger to marrying music and mind-set; you might have ascertained by now that he’s pretty good at it. “Ohio” demonstrates one-take outrage, “Borrowed Tune” sounds more wasted than its protagonist, and so on. Young may not write sentimental battle hymns, but he stays true to the terror of the moment with “Let’s Roll,” which makes the song just as patriotic.