Neil Young + Promise of the Real
The Monsanto Years
"It's a bad day to do nothin'," Neil Young sings with cranky assertion at the start of The Monsanto Years, perhaps the angriest and most topical album he has ever put his name to.
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Throughout its nine songs, Young casts the ag-chemical company Monsanto as a sort of corporate Darth Vader, bent on poisoning the integrity of the family farmer, which the singer has rallied behind for three decades, along with the food they produce. But he doesn't stop there. The Monsanto Years also goes after Starbucks, Safeway, Wal-Mart and, in one outrageous tune, People Want to Hear About Love, the pop mainstream, for ignoring such topical distress in favor of innocuous, feel-good music.
In fact, the only thing approximating a love song on The Monsanto Years is Wolf Moon, the lone acoustic retreat in an album of electric fury, and even it is essentially an environmental ode that turns quietly caustic.
It's easy to dismiss The Monsanto Years as a rant — a heartfelt rant, mind you, but a rant all the same. Eloquent it is not. Poetic and Dylan-esque in its protest attitude it is not. Young so pointedly and crudely attacks his subjects that the record's lyrical stance often becomes tough to digest.
"The seeds of life are not what they once were," Young ruminates at the end of the title tune. "Mother Nature and God don't own them anymore." And that's one of the more concise observations.
But it's also a wild experience to hear Young sounding so passionate and unapologetic. It's hard to picture any other established major-label artist who could get away with calling out major — and in some cases, familiar and popular — corporations by name.
There also is the electric charge that flows under these songs. Teaming with the youthful Promise of the New — led by sibling guitarists Lukas and Micah Nelson, sons of country great Willie Nelson — gives The Monsanto Years the same kind of ragged, rockish feel that distinguishes Young's music with Crazy Horse. In many cases, the arsenal of power chords the troupe comes up with outweighs the already weighty lyrics.
Young, of course, is no stranger to protest music. The way he addressed the Kent State shootings 45 years ago with a single verse, an anthemic chorus and a classic guitar riff in Ohio remains a sterling example of rock 'n' roll efficiency. The Monsanto Years is long-winded by comparison, but its observations are just as vital. Excessive and indulgent, but also uncompromising, it is the work of a rock warrior still full of fire and the fearlessness to unleash it as he chooses.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic