Young at Heart

Whether he’s spurning hippie utopianism in the late sixties, singing the praises of Johnny Rotten in the seventies, skewering Madison Avenue in the eighties, or bringing avant noisemeisters Sonic Youth on tour in the early nineties, Neil Young has built his solo career by frustrating expectations. But Young’s surprisingly conservative new album, Are You Passionate?, is simply frustrating, and worse, often as risk-averse as a CSNY reunion.

As its title suggests, Are You Passionate? is about love and relationships. It’s a seemingly overworked premise to hold together an entire album, but one that nonetheless has inspired some of the best work in pop history, from Basehead’s Play With Toys to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. But excluding an inspired lyric or two (“We went looking for faith on the forest floor / And it showed up everywhere,” for example, from the opener, “You’re My Girl”), Passionate is mostly a passionless cataloguing of romance; on “Quit (Don’t Say You Love Me),” Young even utters that most clichéd of jilted-lover sentiments, “Hey, baby, don’t count me out … I might surprise you.”

The music on Are You Passionate? – provided by Stax session men Booker T. & the MGs – sounds bloodless, too. It’s all shimmery, deep organ playing, droning guitars, and sung-in-unison backup vocals, ploddingly paced and without the tight, turn-on-a-dime funk of the MGs’ work in the sixties and seventies. “Be With You” nicks the opening notes from Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” but the effect is depressing, like hearing a rapper sample a bass line from a familiar funk jam.

The MGs’ deliberate approach works only on “Let’s Roll,” Young’s tribute to the passengers of Flight 93 who revolted against their hijackers on September 11. As Young vividly paints the scene on the plane (“One’s standing in the aisle way / Two more at the door / We got to get inside there / Before they kill some more”), he’s aided by the MGs’ repetitive, jagged guitar lines and the group’s fittingly mournful vocals. When Young finally reaches the chorus, the tension that the MGs have built breaks, perfectly jibing with the now-or-never feel of the lyrics.

Yet the stark power of “Let’s Roll” underscores the rest of the album’s tepidness. Adopting a soulful falsetto, Young sounds like a wedding singer straining for notes; crooning blandly about love and loss, he comes off like an aging R&B star circling the bedroom for the nth time. In a long career, Young has steered his way through so many disparate moods and modes, but Are You Passionate? is the sound of his rudder hitting the sand.

The Winter Music Conference, an annual gathering of D.J.’s and producers held in Miami at the end of March, is known for delivering (to borrow a phrase from Michael Lewis) the “new new thing” with the regularity of a programmed beat. Surprisingly, this year’s conference provided little in the way of future shock, but it still managed to be one of the most satisfying in years. It served as a reminder that electronic music remains a creatively potent scene even while being dominated by middlebrow crowd-pleasers like Paul Oakenfold and Sasha and Digweed. At the Nash Hotel, Fatboy Slim played a completely euphoric set of house music along with everything from New Order to Kylie Minogue; a D.J. duo named Layo and Bushwacka captivated a crowd at the Goddess nightclub until the early-morning hours with a set that alternated between funky electro and thumping, bass-driven house music; and at a small club named Tanja, Detroit ghetto-tech D.J. Disco D played a set that included everything from next-generation electro artists like Detrechno to blissed-out Missy Elliott R&B sidekick Tweet and proved just how truly genre-defying this subgenre can be.

And during a nearly twenty-hour marathon set at open-air club Space, where names of songs were telegraphed on an electronic zipper or announced over the microphone, Danny Tenaglia demonstrated a peerless devotion to educating a dance floor, even if his taste can run toward snoozy, effects-driven progressive house. Tenaglia’s party also played host to the sort of cultural juxtapositions dance music seems especially good at providing: Early in the morning, a sunglasses-sporting Yoko Ono sang “Open Your Box” from the D.J. booth while Fatboy Slim shook hands with the party-worn throngs at the bar.

Are You Passionate?
Neil Young, with Booker T. & the MGs (Warner Bros.).

Young at Heart