It's getting harder and harder to tell the good Neil Young records from the bad ones; they're all blending into the same backfiring buzz, differentiated only by the guitar he chooses to pick up and/or plug in. At this late date, all of it sounds like Rust Never Sleeps or Harvest -- save, yeah, for Trans, which was all bleating heart, or any of those other Geffen releases, which are now overrated by the very people who justly maligned them in the '80s. Not that there's anything wrong with greatness repeating itself -- better the real Neil at half speed than a generation of alt-country scruffians playing Crazy Horse on their toy ponies -- but sooner or later, you just gotta realize that every new Neil you buy sits on the shelf gathering dust next to the old Neil you actually play when the urge strikes. Maybe the discriminating Young fan (and not the kind who writes for Rolling Stone, where they hand out gold stars to old farts and their copper records) can tell the diff and doesn't give a whit; the rest of us are left to ponder whatever became of that long-promised-never-delivered multidisc retrospective that will, at the very least, attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Until then, here's one more example of Young playing old -- as wistful father wondering where his little girl's gone, as sad husband bemoaning the loss of passion, as aging rocker recalling the good old days when "the Band played Rock of Ages in their prime" (that was in 1972, kiddies). And, perhaps in homage to his days spent playing Mr. Soul with Rick James and the Motown-signed Mynah Birds in Toronto in 1966, Young has recruited Booker T. and the MG's (keyboardist Booker T. Jones, bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Steve Potts) to flesh out the funk, which is about as funky as "Time Is Tight" slowed down to 31 rpm. It's Stax/Volt, all right, only without the necessary voltage to keep things running.
Or maybe Young thought that writing love songs -- and Are You Passionate? is littered with them, variations on either the she-loves-me-she-saves-me-she-heals-me theme or the baby-where-did-our-love-go theme -- meant holding back, lying low, playing slow. An album meant to move just idles in the CD player; it gets going only when bringing those ancient Memphis echoes to the fore, when our memories of those old songs are allowed to override the new ones built out of affection and considerable distance. Joe Jackson did the same thing on the Mike's Murder soundtrack in 1983, and he was no more successful; those who repeat history, verbatim, are doomed to get stuck in its quagmire.
Are You Passionate? likely will be remembered for two things (which is more than 2000's utterly forgettable Silver & Gold had going for it): "Goin' Home," the sole song cut with Crazy Horse; and "Let's Roll," Young's attempt to climb aboard Flight 93 with Todd Beamer and take down that plane before it hits the White House. The latter is noble and flawed, inspirational and lethargic: There's no denying the sentiment ("You got to turn on evil/When it's comin' after you . . . We're goin' after Satan/On the wings of a dove"), but the damned thing's so boring it blends into the background; Young's got nothing inside his clenched fist.
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"Goin' Home," about Custer's last stand in a boardroom full of "assorted slimes," isn't particularly noteworthy, either, save for the fact it at least sounds like flesh instead of wax. Like a best-of medley, or Decade shrunk down to nine shambling minutes, it shudders and roars appropriately. Still, it does little more than make you wanna haul out American Stars 'N Bars and listen to "Like a Hurricane," since it's just the same damned song. Or is that "Powderfinger" I hear?