This came out in 2002 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):
To borrow a line from Forrest Gump, a Neil Young album is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.
Or, in the case of the shape-shifting singer-songwriter, who you’re going to get. Sometimes you get Mr. Rock. Sometimes you get Mr. Folk. Sometimes Mr. Country. Every now and then it’s Mr. Grunge, Mr. Rockabilly, Mr. Swing or even Mr. Electronic.
On his latest surprise Are You Passionate? — his thirtysomethingth album and first solo studio disc since Silver and Gold — you get to meet Neil’s latest alter-ego: Mr. Soul. And no, I’m not referring to his old Buffalo Springfield song. I’m talking soul as in Memphis soul. Motown soul. Maybe even a little Muscle Shoals soul thrown in for good measure. Believe it or not, that’s where Young’s musical wanderlust has led him this time around — to the world of Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave and The Temptations.
Sure, the heart of Southern soul is quite a journey for a white kid from Winnipeg. But as always, Neil makes it an interesting trip. Most of Are You Passionate’s 11 tracks are warm, seductive soul stirrers, with Neil crooning romantically over top of lazy, loose R&B grooves that bob and glide along with authenticity. They oughta sound authentic; for his backing band, Young has enlisted no less than Booker T. & The MG’s. Between them, these guys — organist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald (Duck) Dunn and drummer Steve (Smokey) Potts — have backed up everyone from Otis and Wilson to Big Star and The Blues Brothers, not to mention a stint as Neil’s live band during the mid-’90s. Here, Booker’s burbling organ, Dunn’s climbing bass lines and Cropper’s supple high-neck chording create such a tastefully nostalgic, instantly familiar background you wonder if Neil is about to launch into (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.
Thankfully, Young knows he’s no Otis. Nor does he try to slip into anyone else’s shoes here. He just sticks to his guns, vocalizing in the same creaky yelp he’s been nursing for 40 years and soloing away haphazardly on his old fuzz-tone Les Paul. Somehow, though, it all seems to fit together just fine with the old-school grooves and melodies. A couple of the tracks seem taken almost directly from I Can’t Turn You Loose — You’re My Girl combines the familiar melody with bits of The Temptations’ My Girl, while Be With You mixes it with The Supremes’ Come See About Me. At the slower end of the spectrum are the title cut, Mr. Disappointment, Two Old Friends and When I Hold You in My Arms — bluesier, loping waltzes and ballads closer to Young’s more usual fare. Finally, the closer She’s A Healer is a smouldering, hypnotic soul workout that makes Young seem funkier than any old white guy has a right to sound.
There are two notable exceptions to the formula: Goin’ Home, an epic, slowly crunching rock jam featuring Crazy Horse instead of The MG’s; and Let’s Roll, Young’s dark, much-heralded 9/11 tribute. Inspired by the last reported words of Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer — one of the civilians who reportedly fought terrorists for control of the hijacked airliner — the track is a tense, deliberately paced ballad set inside the doomed plane, with powerful lyrics (“One’s standing in the aisleway, two more in the door / We got to get inside there, before they kill some more”) and a dark, no-nonsense delivery that make it the rawest and most moving musical tribute to the victims of Sept. 11 released so far.
Maybe we should call him Mr. Heart and Soul instead.