Somewhere under ghastly sub-Hallmark card artwork, hiding within the 65 competent (that's not a compliment), exhausting (neither is that) minutes of Are You Passionate?, are a couple of decent songs. For his latest release, that contrary old bastard Neil Young has assembled a hodgepodge of earnest, entirely unexciting Stax and Motown homages (played with clinical precision by a backing band that includes two former members of Booker T and the MG's) enlivened by one glorious Crazy Horse retread and That Song About Sept. 11th. Obsessively lovelorn, Are You Passionate? isn't worth your time or money.
It's hard to know where to begin. Young hasn't sounded so uninspired since 1993's Unplugged or, as studio albums go, the Reagan-era Geffen experiments. I can't even work up a significant feeling of antipathy toward most of these songs. They resist extended listening and blend together. Unlike an album such as Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, for which the bile rises so easily, Are You Passionate? leaves me completely unmoved. It's not bad, it's just so goddamn mediocre.
There's a lot of generic romance and family in Young's first-draft lyrics; when the couplet "My blue-eyed woman is a love ghost/ Without that woman, I'm toast" rears its head, you know we're in artistic quicksand and sinking fast, and the last thing you want to do is hang around to see what's at the bottom.
At least "Let's Roll" is obnoxious, for both its bland guitar groove and Young's lyrics, which to my ears trivialize the events he seeks to embolden. We know the people he sings about are heroes, but this song trades embarrassingly on their actions and offers no insight into that tragic day or the events that have followed. Give Young credit for his engagement and urgency on this cut, which can't be said of the majority of Are You Passionate? Other than "Goin' Home," which pushes nine minutes of vintage Crazy Horse stomp and melds historical allusions to present-day angst, the rest of the record is mannered and plain.
I just don't get the sense that Young and the backing musicians went for broke during the sessions for Are You Passionate? It's the first studio follow-up to the intimate and emotional 2000 release, Silver & Gold a true Young classic and one has to wonder what was going through his head when he chose to release this one. We expect a whole lot more from Young. We expect him to take chances, to really go for it. Which is just what he didn't do while recording most of this half-baked mélange.