Release Date: Jun 29, 2015
Record label: Reprise
An anti-GM food concept album by Neil Young may not seem a thrilling prospect, I grant you. But although People Want to Hear About Love, as he acknowledges on his song of that title, shouldn’t he talk about “the corporations hijacking all your rights”, too? And on-form and on-song – as he undoubtedly is here (he also has a pop at Starbucks, Walmart and Safeway) – Young is still a force to be reckoned with. There is urgency and energy here: “Too big to fail / Too rich for jail,” he sings on Big Box.
Neil Young isn’t afraid of controversy or pile-driving expectations. On The Monsanto Years, the iconoclast skewers economic deception, corruption of our food and the profit motive while offering evidence of why the raggedy rocker matters. “Big Box” echoes “Powderfinger” and “My, My (Hey, Hey),” surging electric guitar blasts pummeling a lyric that offers a sobering reality check about corporate justification and the demise of smaller economic bases.
Coming 30 years after he co-founded benefit concert series Farm Aid, and named after an agrochemical corporation known for producing genetically modified seeds, ‘The Monsanto Years’ is Neil Young’s eco warrior battle cry. The follow-up to 2014’s ‘Storytone’ was recorded by a band featuring Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah, and ‘A New Day For Love’ starts things in rolling, rousing fashion. “It’s a bad day to do nothing/With so many people needing our help” he calls, setting an angry yet deeply melodic and willfully compassionate tone.
Neil Young is angry. As the title suggests, this time around the subject of his ire is corporate greed..
Old folkie that he is, Neil Young harbors a soft spot for songs as protest, and The Monsanto Years is full of them. Where he often railed against war, here the purported target is the agricultural company Monsanto, a firm that, among other things, specializes in genetically modified crops, but Young uses that as a pivot to rage against all manner of modern outrages. Apathy among the populace, avarice among corporations, and cultural homogenization provide the throughline on The Monsanto Years, and while the weathered hippie takes some time to lay down his electric guitar and breathe, this isn't a mournful album like Living with War, his W-era missive.
Neil Young is formidable on his 36th studio album, The Monsanto Years, raging against Monsanto, GMO agribusiness, big box stores and Starbucks. He's backed by his Farm Aid buddies, Willie Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah, along with Lukas's bandmates from Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real.I don't mind Young's righteous side — in fact, in certain doses, I'm all for it. His plainly spoken conviction is intoxicating here backed by a rock and roll band, and The Monsanto Years not only sounds like it would make for a rousing live show, but often sounds like it was ripped straight from the soundboard.
“It’s a bad day to do nothin’ / with so many people needin’ our help,” Neil Young obstreperously verbalizes within the opening moments of intro track “New Day For Love”, “to keep their lands away from the greedy / who only plunder for themselves. ” A bellowing call to arms, the roots rock-ridden number evokes a rebellious combativeness reminiscent of Living with War alongside the same earnest zeal crafted across bygone eras like 1988’s This Note’s for You. This time, though, his focus is more fine-tuned as he’s crafted an entire body of work in protest of agricultural corporation Monsanto and the genetically modified organisms that come with it.
Both an unapologetic rabble-rouser and an unrepentant rocker, Neil Young has never been one to deny his muse. From his earliest output under the auspices of the Buffalo Springfield through a fifty year career marked by continuous starts and shifts, he’s proven himself a chameleon of multiple hues, continually shifting his stance with each new turn in the road. Few artists could absorb such inconsistency, one that ranges from the rage and resolve of his work with Crazy Horse to the sensitive singer/songwriter fare constructed around a single guitar and a howl of despair.
Neil Young is angry. And, for once, his indignation isn’t aimed at concertgoers or those not so keen on his hi-res Pono music player. No, Shakey’s ire is directed four square at Monsanto, the US agribusiness giant which he sees as being at the forefront of a corporate takeover of US democracy. Backed by Micah and Lukas Nelson’s Promise Of The Real, Young has played his way back into form with a concept album that puts protest at its heart.
Most pop concerns itself with romantic love. Three songs into his latest album, prolific Canadian songwriter Neil Young exudes frustration at how his metier has become so safe. “People wanna hear about love,” he croons ruefully, backed by a new band in which two of Willie Nelson’s sons star. Young, though, wants to sing about seeds and bankers “too rich for jail”.
Neil Young has been sounding the alarm about environmental issues for more than four decades. He warned us to "look at Mother Nature on the run" in "After the Gold Rush," way back in 1970, a few months after the first Earth Day. He's stayed on message through records like 2003's Greendale, on which he pleaded, "We got to save Mother Earth," and 2009's Fork in the Road, an ad for his alternative-power LincVolt car.
Shakey at his most determined on this diatribe against corporate greed. Neil Young’s 40th album and sixth this decade finds him in a state of righteously specific ire. The Monsanto of the record’s title is an organisation producing GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). As a result, the old buzzard is pissed.
Neil Young hit the headlines recently after celebrity billionaire Donald Trump blasted out “Rockin’ In The Free World” at the event to announce his intent to run for the Republican presidential candidacy without the songwriter’s permission. It's a classic example of a politician completely misreading a song by struggling to sniff the ambiguous but clearly present anger lurking beneath the fist-pumping exterior. There's no room for such misinterpretations with The Monsanto Years, named as an anti-tribute to a multinational agricultural giant with interests in genetically modified crops and pesticides.
When Neil Young gets angry, he gets impulsive. Mere days after the May 1970 massacre at Kent State, he had branded Richard Nixon a mass murderer; nearly 20 years later, he was redrafting George Bush Sr.'s inaugural address into a state-of-the-union screed dripping with so much bitter sarcasm, some conservatives still mistake it for an ad hoc national anthem. Those songs remain FM-radio staples to this day because their raging invectives still sting like a ripped-off bandage, decades removed from the moments that incited them.
Neil Young will never cease to concern himself with the future of our planet. On The Monsanto Years, his ecologically focused 36th studio album, he sings with the emotion of an aging father who throws his fist in the air at Fox News. Joined by Promise of the Real, a band featuring Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah, Young confronts the ways Monsanto threatens biodiversity.
Neil Young does whatever the hell he wants. There’s a precedent for this in his long, prolific career — now approaching forty solo albums — but it’s been especially true of late. In the last five or so years, we got Crazy Horse back in action to, uh, record a bunch of traditionals and then a bunch of superlong jams; we got a concept album about Young’s converted hybrid Lincoln.
Neil Young + Promise of the RealThe Monsanto Years(Reprise)Rating: 2. 5 out of 5 stars If the idea of having Neil Young bark at you about the evils of Monsanto, Starbucks, Walmart (and other mega corporations) in a get-off-my-lawn voice and approach that makes Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino sound like Dolly Parton, atop ragged glory backing from Crazy Horse wannabees is enticing, well … we have the album for you. Everyone’s favorite hippie turned old school curmudgeon (except Donald Trump’s), takes his ire towards the titular chemical company, employs Willie Nelson’s son’s band, and grinds through 50 minutes of impressively unvarnished if mostly forgettable rock meant to increase awareness of how big companies like Monsanto are crushing farmers.
Protest music is a risk. It is a risk in your garage at 17, indignant over your weed-dealing friend’s arrest, or a looming war, or death itself; it is a risk the same for the rock star, the famous songwriter, after decades of influence and adoration. It is an artistic risk, as all art in complete earnest (or as close to such a state as any medium can allow) always must be.
It's easy to imagine an ideal version of The Monsanto Years, one in which Neil Young's yowling grassroots fury plays off Willie Nelson's reassuring cool, the two Farm Aid vets finding a neat equilibrium between tuneful levity and righteous anger. Yet late-career albums from classic rockers rarely approach perfection, and so in this case we get something less balanced, with two lesser Nelsons (Willie's youngest sons, Lukas and Micah) playing ranch-hand to a single-minded, profoundly self-indulgent Young. Continuing his populist campaign against corporate robber barons, he leads a series of sing-alongs intended to rouse tempers toward the titular agro-business giant, but while his anger and focus are admirable, the material doesn't come anywhere close to matching his passion.
Songwriters can cover any number of subjects. But before Neil Young’s new “The Monsanto Years,” it’s unlikely anyone created an entire album devoted to the following topics: • The effects of genetically modified food on human digestion. • Bread packaging and advertising at Safeway. •The iIngredients used in Starbucks’ coffee.
Willie Nelson and Neil Young go back at least as far as 1985's initial Farm Aid, but nobody could've imagined the latter collaborating with the former's sons. Lukas and Micah Nelson weren't even born yet! The brothers' Promise of the Real stomps like Young's Crazy Horse – guitars howling – but they bring out something in their employer here that's missing from his recent efforts. Overtly political subject matter energizes him as well.
At this point in his career, Neil Young has traveled so many paths that his oeuvre is its own game of Choose Your Own Adventure. Need some acoustic-based comfort? Head to "Harvest." Hardened introspection? "Tonight's the Night." "Trans" works well for new wave moods. "Get Back to the Country" delivers as advertised. Noise? Check out "Arc." "The Monsanto Years" is Young in electrified protest mode.
For an undisguised, heavy-handed topical Neil Young record, The Monsanto Years is actually engaging and mostly effective. Maybe because outspoken satire like, say, his Rockin' In The Free World, has been widely misinterpreted and co-opted by the kind of villains it was lashing out against (Fuck you, Donald Trump. Fuck. You.), Young has dispensed with artful mystery and just sings the things he means as directly as possible.
For most artists, the concept album is the one half your career has led up to. For Neil Young, it’s the thing he throws together in a few raucous-seeming weeks every three or four years. Greendale, Young’s puzzling 2003 rock opera, set something of a template for the rest of his theme albums: They’re generally skeletal, three-chord rock full of communal choruses and prickly political concerns.
Neil Young set the bar high for protest songs with “Ohio,” a 1970 stunner about the National Guard killing of four Kent State students. But “Living With War,” his 2006 album about President George W. Bush, was a dud, and so is this new one, on which Young, a cofounder of Farm Aid, rips Monsanto for its genetically engineered seeds and herbicides.
Tell you what, when he finds out about this, Neil Young's going to be livid. It's bad enough that somebody should have attempted this audacious jape in the first place, recording a parody album under his name. But worse still that they've induced his own record company to release it. Whoever it was, you have to give the cheeky blighters credit for their ingenuity.