Neil Young's Electric Car Songs Make Some Regret That 'Rust Never Sleeps'

Ever since Chuck Berry pleaded with “Maybellene,” car songs have been a staple of rock n’roll. But can this venerable tradition survive an eco-update? Rocker Neil Young is about to put it to the test with an entire album of songs about electric cars.

Young, 63, a veteran of Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and a solo artist since the mid-1970s, is famous for both elegant and introspective acoustic folk and distorted, high-decibel electric rave-ups. He still tours and records, but in recent years has dedicated significant time and resources to his pet project – converting a 1959 Lincoln Continental into an all-electric car.

Young’s “Linc Volt” project is ambitious. Its mission, according to the Web site, is “to inspire a generation by creating a clean automobile propulsion technology that serves the needs of the 21st Century and delivers performance that is a reflection of the driver's spirit.” The Linc Volt zero emissions technology will “reduce the demand for petro-fuels enough to eliminate the need for war over energy supplies, thereby enhancing the security of the USA and other nations ...”

It all makes for a great science project, and Young is producing a documentary film on the effort. But as music?

Young’s new album, “Fork in the Road,” is scheduled for release this spring. According to the environmental Web site Ecorazzi, it will include song titles such as “Cough Up the Bucks,” “Hit the Road,” “Get Around” and “Fuel Line.” Young has offered fans a taste of the new material with a low-budget web-video of the album’s title track.

“Fork in the Road” is grinding, unmelodic and, as some of the lyrics show, angry:

Forgot this year, to salute the troops.

They're all still there in a ****ing war.

It's no good. Whose idea was that?

There's a bailout coming but it's not for me.

It's for all those creeps watching tickers on TV.

There's a bailout coming but it's not for me.

I'm a big rock star.

My sales have tanked, but I still got you. Thanks!

Download this. Sounds like ****.

Unfortunately for Young, a lot people seem to agree with that last line. In a Village Voice review of a Young concert at MadisonSquareGarden in December, Rob Harvilla warned people to “avoid” the new album.

“[A]mid luscious dips into The Beloved Neil Young Canon, we are also graced/terrorized with multiple cuts from what would seem to be an impending concept album about eco-friendly cars,” Harvilla wrote.

Harvilla described the car songs as “disturbingly beef-witted: Endless exhortations to ‘Fill 'er up!’; mindless refrains of  ‘Cough up the bucks!’ … starry-eyed tributes to ‘the awesome power of electricity’; lots of driver's-ed-instruction-as-societal-imperative (‘I turn my signal on and look both ways’).”

Fans haven’t exactly risen to the singer’s defense. On “Thrasher’s Wheat,” a Neil Young fan Web site, many people who heard the new songs during recent concerts were unsparing in their criticism.

Commenters on that site said, “This new stuff is simply the most tired music I've ever heard from Neil,” and "The other car songs featured on tour are decidedly bad, but this 'Fork in the Road' song is so distressingly awful that it almost seems like a joke. So hideous that one almost has to laugh at the situation.”

In his long career, Neil Young has developed a reputation for sudden lurches in style and direction, often confounding fans and critics alike. And he’s often had success with topical and political material. But a concept album of songs about electric cars may only please a small collection of environmentalists, and be one left turn too many.

The car-obsessed Web site Jalopnik put it best: “An electric 1959 Lincoln Continental Mark IV Convertible is cool. An entire record about environmentally-friendly cars? Not so much.”