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by Justin Farrar

April 21, 2009

The Man-E-Faces of Neil Young

by Justin Farrar  |  April 21, 2009

Over the last couple of weeks I've devoted my time to two endeavors: one, listening to the new Neil Young album Fork in the Road. And two, reading digitized versions of the old Masters of the Universe comic book series.

I know revisiting the toys of my youth is a corny-ass retro-nostalgia trip, but the series' early issues do contain some quality fantasy writing. My fave is "The Ordeal of Man-E-Faces" (series 2, #74340). One of He-Man's most trusted allies, Man-E-Faces is this powerful freak who boasts three faces: that of man, monster and robot. It's a condition brought on by one of Skeletor's many pernicious curses.

Nevertheless, as I was reading -- with Fork in the Road cranked, mind you -- I came to the realization that Neil is a lot like Man-E-Faces. In fact, his entire discography can be broken down as such:

The Man: This is the Earthy Neil of Harvest, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, Comes a Time, Silver & Gold and so on. It also includes Quietly Damaged and Introspective Neil (On the Beach, After the Gold Rush).

The Monster: Here we have Hard Rocking Neil (Ragged Glory, Weld), Rambunctious Neil (American Stars 'N Bars), Bitter and Satirical Neil (Tonight's the Night, This Note's For You) and Politically Indignant Neil (Living With War).

The Robot: This is the most interesting, if misunderstood, of the three faces, as it encompasses Disco Neil (Trans), Punk Rock Neil (Rust Never Sleeps), New Wave Neil (Re-ac-tor), Synth Neil (Landing on Water, Industrial Neil (Arc) and Jamming with Devo Neil (Human Highway).

Of course, this leads us to ask, "Which face is his latest album?"

Over the last decade or so, as Neil has vacillated between ruminations on mortality and angry political rants, we've either been subjected to man or monster. But Fork in the Road breaks this trend. It's the first album in a long time wherein Neil actually turns to the robot inside him.

Let's first look at the concept powering Fork in the Road, which (how I see it) is all about transforming Mother Earth into a big, round cyborg wherein machine (totally sweet rides) and organic life (everything from old-growth wilderness to polar ice caps) can coexist harmoniously. Neil, you see, recently converted his 1959 Lincoln Continental to run on a mix of alternative fuel sources. He then wrote a bunch of songs inspired by this process.

Taken as a whole, Fork in the Road is a murky song cycle attempting to reconcile America's love for cars and the open road with its need to create a thriving green economy. Neil is a true (North) American; he worships both cars and the environment. Yet the dude also knows that most eco-friendly automobiles make their drivers look like total dweebs. And to not look cool while behind the wheel is downright unpatriotic. Can you imagine Two-Lane Blacktop or Thunder Road made with Smart cars? Or how about Daisy Duke splayed across a Prius?

Where the Robot really makes his presence felt is in the actual music. This is Neil's most groove-oriented album since 1986's Landing on Water, which was his awesomely bizarre stab at Like a Virgin-inspired synth-pop. Fork in the Road is way better, however, because he employs one gnarled guitar tone after another. The best just might be "Cough up the Bucks," a total robo-funk throwdown. DFA's James Murphy really needs to turn this tune into his label's next 12-inch club jammer. He could even add electro vocals to the oft-repeated line "It's all about my car." Or, for something a tad more radical, Neil could always re-record it with the mighty Konono No. 1 as his backup band. Now that would be a nasty chunk of African trance.

Another killer tune is "Fuel Line." The opening lyric -- "Her engine's running, and her fuel is clean/ She only uses it because she's a machine" -- actually reads like a robot bragging about his sexy robot lover. Then there's Neil's ax, which sounds like a couple of soda-dispensing machines grooving to old-school electric body music. All in all, it's a lot like Blue Man Group or Stomp, only cooler.

Other tunes that bust the mechanized funk are the opener "When Worlds Collide" and the feel-good choogler "Hit the Road." That said, my theory eventually breaks down when Young drops classic ballads such as "Off the Road" and the gorgeous "Light a Candle."

But hey, there's always going to be a little man in the machine and vice versa -- just ask Man-E-Faces!

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