Neil Young + Promise of the Real Give Outrage a Voice on ‘The Visitor’

For his 39th studio album, Neil Young wants to remind us what a protest song sounds like. Considering the state of the world, it’s not a moment too soon. The legendary singer-songwriter is no stranger to rattling the cage with his deeply personal lyrics, all while braving new sonic terrain thanks to an unwavering desire to experiment. That experimentation gives character to “The Visitor,” Young’s third collaboration with the Promise of the Real that skirts from bluesy delights to full-bodied orchestrations without missing a step. But “The Visitor” is powered mostly by Young’s outrage by everything he sees around him. It flows through every measure, leaving the listener with a firm vision of the singer shaking his head at the freak-show in which the world finds itself.

“I’m a worried man,” Young admits on the bluesy refrain of “Diggin A Hole.” It’s a track that comes closer to “The Visitor’s” end than its beginning, but it’s the most succinct summation of everything the songwriting titan is feeling. He’s worried for the people who have to deal with a turbulent today, but he’s also worried that his grandchildren are facing an even more uncertain tomorrow. “The Boy King don’t believe in Science,” he laments on rocker “Stand Tall.” “It goes against the Big Money Truth/His playpen is full of Deniers/They’ll flush our future down the tubes.”

“The Visitor” excels at putting Young’s indignation with the world around him front and center. It presents itself in many forms, from Young spurring on the American people on “Already Great” — sampling protestors who chant “No wall/No hate/no fascist USA” before responding “not my words/that’s you the other day/out there on the street” — or banging out funky satire on “Fly By Night Deal,” where he derides those spearheading oil pipelines and other environmental hazards. Listeners get a taste of Young’s propensity for the abnormal on “Carnival,” an eerie eight-minute sprawl rich in dizzying dissonance, maniacal cackles and psychedelic sensations. It’s frequent use of sounds you’d hear at a circus paints a sonic portrait of the freak-show Young sees playing out around him, and the sounds create a collage almost as unsettling as the real thing. Almost, but not quite.

The most ambitious part of “The Visitor” has to be “Children of Destiny,” a cut that employs an orchestra to belt out some of the cheeriest tunes you’ve ever heard while Young pleads for us to “stand up for what you believe/resist the powers that be.” Unlike the rest of the album, “Children of Destiny” feels too didactic in nature, forcing a message through an overly cheery chorus that fails to sit well. But the straightforward blues-rocker “When Bad Got Good” quickly corrects things, putting the album back on a stellar pace. “Forever,” the album’s final cut, is a return to form for Young, where Young explains that “Earth is like a church without a preacher/the people have to pray for themselves.”

Ultimately, “The Visitor” is a spirited effort from a veteran who’s done it all and seen even more. This time he’s baffled, and he can only hope we learn to pray for ourselves before it’s too late.

The Visitor” is available Dec. 1 on Apple Music.