Neil Young a soul singer? That seems to be the strange-but-true premise behind his newest 11-song release, Are You Passionate? And well why not; Young’s tried just about everything else in his almost 40-year career.

Paul Wong
Three stars.

From the folk/country hybrid of classic albums like 1972s Harvest, to genre workouts of swing, rockabilly and yes, even techno in the 80s, to the blissful grungy, feedback rock of his 90s albums like Freedom and Mirror Ball, there hasn’t been much Neil was afraid to try. In fact, when people say they’re a Neil Young fan what does that even mean? Which Neil are they talking about?

Of course that’s why Neil Young is Neil Young. Even if his “never-stay-in-one-place, never-get-comfortable” attitude has led to a score of hit or miss records over the years, his tireless efforts to always reinvent himself have made him the most proficient and reliable artist in the history of rock n’ roll, hands down.

Yet somehow even the man who proclaimed “its better to burn out than to fade away” has managed to grow old in spite of himself. He’s aware of it too. Like Pete Townsend grimacing every time he realizes he’ll still be playing “My Generation” when he’s 80, Young doesn’t welcome aging, but at least he seems to be realizing its still going to happen.

So he buries the hatchet and reconnects with Crosby, Stills and Nash for a series of tours and here he gets back to the music of his youth by releasing Passionate. And give the man some credit: He enlists some talented friends who know a thing or two about soul. Keyboardist Booker T. Jones and bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn were one half of the legendary Booker T. and the MG’s, the house band at Stax Records who played on just about every song to come out of that seminal label. They’ve toured behind Young for years but this is the first time they’ve joined him in the studio.

Young’s voice has always been something of an acquired taste. Although Neil’s thin tenor doesn’t quite sound like Otis Redding, he makes due through the songs on Passionate, sometimes dropping into a low, Dylan-esque growl to carry though the mid-tempo groovers that dominate this record. Of course mid-tempo isn’t where Young really belongs. He’s usually at his best when he’s either rocking hard upbeat or taking his time slowly and quietly building something soft and beautiful.

So for now Neil Young fans will patiently roll their eyes a bit at this album, hoping that good old Grandpa Grunge is only biding his time and secretly gearing up to once again kick some ass. Just don’t be surprised if we have to first listen to an album of reggae or salsa in order to get back to rock.

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