Living with war

It’s been a little over three years since the United States of America invaded Iraq. Public opinion on the issue was divided before the invasion began and hasn’t calmed down since.

And as body counts and the price of everything from freedom to gasoline has risen, President Bush’s approval rating has continued to slide downward.

For many in the U.S.A. though, the day-to-day onslaught in Iraq remains a distant topic – something briefly seen and noted in the news, then just as quickly discarded.

Yet for rock artists Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam, the United States’ occupation of Iraq is still a burning issue. All three have recently released LPs that directly comment on the situation in Iraq. Coincidentally, all three albums are high-watermarks in each artist’s career.

While Pearl Jam has openly discussed politics since the band began in 1991, Young’s Living With War and Springsteen’s We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions are in many ways the first time the artists have used their commercial artistic medium to loudly and vividly sing what can best be described as “protest songs.”

Granted, Springsteen has always been topical. Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A. were filled with images of a worn-out, downtrodden American working class. Creating a wondrous world of lost lovers and all-or-nothing laborers who constantly battled the cold realities of America and lost, Springsteen was a champion of and for the common person.

In the 2004 presidential election, he was a co-headliner (along with Pearl Jam) on the Vote for Change tour. And Springsteen spoke and performed during the final days of John Kerry’s presidential campaign, warming up the crowd prior to Kerry’s on-stage appearances.

Young has dipped his toes in politics before as well. He made passionate guest appearances on the Vote for Change tour. He wrote “Let’s Roll” following the downing of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001. His “Ohio” is perhaps the finest protest song ever written by anyone who isn’t Bob Dylan. And LPs such as Mirrorball, On the Beach and Hawks and Doves were all filled with stark portraits of an America at a loss as to how to define itself.

But as the United States’ occupation of Iraq has changed the world as of late, Young, Springsteen and Pearl Jam have found a common ground in their reaction and outrage to the new world order.

Moreover, there is a striking similarity in the tone, demeanor and outlook of the songs that each artist has recently recorded.

“What does it mean when a war has taken over?” sings a defiant Ed Vedder in “World Wide Suicide,” the blistering first single from Pearl Jam.

“All foreign wars I do proclaim, live on blood and a mother’s pain,” Springsteen improvs in the Irish folk tune “Mrs. McGrath.” “I’d rather have my son as he used to be, than the king of America and his whole Navy.”

Young is even more vitriolic.

“And as the dawn breaks I see my fellow man,” Young sings in his customary shaky tone. “And on the flat-screen we kill and we’re killed again.”

As each artist’s lyrics converge and meet on the same battlefield, so does the music that serves as their background.

On Living With War, the chameleon-like Young changes his sound once again. Stripping his arrangements back down (following the Grand Ole Opry big-band sound found on Prairie Wind), Young harkens back to his Rust Never Sleeps and Ragged Glory days.

The guitar is thick and overtly distorted. Rhythmic chords charge while long, held notes shriek. A trumpet blares. Bass is simple and low. The drumming is tight and minimalistic. And a 100-person chorus backs Young as he delivers a sermon that would have President Bush in a confession box if he ever actually heard the songs.

Springsteen matches Young’s fire.

Using only acoustic instruments, Springsteen re-opens graves and wounds via folk songs that have been sung (loudly) in barrooms and on stages for centuries. Horns, violins, a banjo, acoustic guitars, rolling drums and a rollicking backing chorus create an explosion of sound.

Sounding like an aged, impassioned general barking out orders to his troops, it’s as if Springsteen has discovered the fountain of youth. But he’s seen too much go down in the last three years to take a drink.

Lastly, Pearl Jam can be read in a variety of ways. A 13-song testament to the perils of war, the insides of a soldier’s head. A unified collection of characters, each of whom has been touched and left worse off by the policies of the Bush administration. Or, simply, a fiery, straightforward, propulsive rock record that has the band sounding better than The Who in their prime. Take your pick.

However one sees it, though, it cannot be ignored that, lyrically, the LP takes the same reigns that Young and Springsteen hold on their albums.

In their own way, each artist is making a declaration: enough.

Vedder, a disciple of Young and Springsteen, is fond of Mike Watt’s statement that “all of this manure will make for good fertilizer.”

Watt is right.

It’s taken three years of war and chaos, but Young, Springsteen and Pearl Jam have each released some of the best work of their long, storied careers.

And people are listening. Each album has debuted in the top five of Billboard’s sales charts.

So, the question instantly arises: just what are the listeners going to do with the new sounds?