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Few artists are as confounding as Neil Young. Days after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Young performed a stirring version of John Lennon's utopian anthem "Imagine" on the solemn America: Tribute to Heroes telethon. Then he quickly recorded (and released to radio) "Let's Roll," his eerie tribute to Todd Beamer and the other passengers aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in a Pennsylvania field. Some wondered how Young, who thirty years ago wrote "Ohio" in response to the Kent State killings, could reconcile Lennon's call for a world with "nothing to kill and die for" with lines like: "No one has the answers/But one thing is true/You got to turn on evil/When it's comin' after you./You got to face it down/And when it tries to hide/You got to go in after it/And never be denied."
What happened to the '60s hippie idealist? Had the dove turned into a hawk? Was Young now shilling for Bush, just as he once did for Reagan? The Village Voice, of all publications, called "Let's Roll" "brilliant," but some of Young's fans were appalled. "What I heard was a tribute to President Bush," posted one disgruntled fan in an Internet chat group. Another complained, "Not another peace-lover-turned-warmonger." Leftie rock critic Dave Marsh called the song "jingoistic."
But Young has always been a contradictory fellow, and pinning down his politics is like trying to nail mercury to the wall. When others zig, he zags. Just when you've got him pegged as a liberal, or a conservative, he veers off the reservation.
On his fine new album, Are You Passionate?, it's clear that Young is trying to work out some of the same contradictions that either inspire or infuriate his fans. Now 56, he comes across as an old hippie who's lowered his sights a bit. He seems much more concerned with matters of the heart than matters of the state, the sole exception being "Let's Roll," which was undoubtedly added at the last minute. Mostly, Are You Passionate? is about getting old and trying to hang on to your dreams. And if it isn't as satisfying as his last studio effort, 2000's Silver and Gold, it's still a worthy addition to Young's extensive catalogue.
Recorded with members of Booker T. and the MG's (organist Booker T. Washington, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, and drummer Steve Potts), and with help from Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro, Are You Passionate? finds Young in a Memphis-style soul groove. There's not an acoustic guitar to be heard. The opener, "You're My Girl," about letting go of a daughter who's now grown up, even steals a lick from Booker T.'s "Time Is Tight," and "Be With You," a heartfelt pledge of love and devotion, borrows from the Supremes' "Come See About Me." On the full-bore rocker "Goin' Home," Young brings in Crazy Horse for some patented sonic thunder. It's a good number that would have been right at home on Ragged Glory, but here it stands out like a sore thumb.
Reflecting on his life, Young admits to having a few regrets ("Differently"), but he hasn't completely abandoned the yearnings of his youth. In the album's best song, the lovely "Two Old Friends" -- one of several from Are You Passionate? that Young is performing on his current tour with buddies Crosby, Stills and Nash -- he still dreams of "a time when love and music is everywhere," and he longs to "See no evil/Feel no evil/Fear no evil/In my heart." Yet he also acknowledges that "the world has changed." Love is still the answer, but it's the personal kind, not the "All You Need Is Love" kind, that makes life worthwhile. In the soulful ballad "When I Hold You in My Arms," he muses: "New buildings going up, old buildings coming down/New signs going up, old signs going down/You got to hold on to something in this life."
Like Bob Dylan's Love and Theft, Are You Passionate? is the work of a mature artist coming to terms with the inevitable disappointments of middle age. Cynicism, however, isn't an option. "Are you passionate?" he asks in the title song, a slow rocker that contains some of Washington's tastiest organ licks. "Are you livin' like you talk?/Are you dreamin' how/That you're going to the top?/Are you negative?/In a world that never stops/Turnin' on you/Turnin' on me/Turnin' on you." Young may be growing old, but he's still a hippie at heart, and the same man who wrote "Let's Roll" still wears a guitar strap adorned with doves and peace symbols.