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. Outraged. Frustrated. Determined. Dense with “Ragged Glory"-style distortion but minus his longtime backing band, Crazy Horse, the artist’s album is rich with righteous indignation and a central theme that could have sprung from a Donald Trump stump speech: “How can we regain our freedom?” he sings in “Big Box.”
With the Horse chilling in the stables, Young uses backing from Lukas and Micah Nelson (sons of Willie) and Lukas’ band Promise of the Real to air his grievances and offer solutions. Needless to say, he and Trump disagree on a lot. One is a big-business wonk. The other argues for dismantling the corporations and ideals that he believes harm the environment, small-town life, democracy and the economy.
What’s the problem? The Citizens United Supreme Court decision. Pesticides and their alleged effect on autism. Voting ambivalence. A dying Earth. An imaginary institution called PlunderCo, cited for being “too big to fail,” its executives being “too rich for jail.” What else you got?
This is Citizen Neil delivering the news while bemoaning a population too disinterested to notice. As he offers on “People Want to Hear About Love,” his voice quivering with either age, rage or both. “Don’t talk about the Chevron millions/ Going to pipeline politicians/People want to hear about love,” he sings.
But if the stridency of Young’s beliefs were to always have resulted in success, we’d all be listening to hi-fi music on Pono players. “The Monsanto Years,” while noble in its intentions and hardened in its delivery, isn’t Young at his best. Despite a fresh band offering dense rock, Young’s a lazy lyricist throughout, as if he scribbled rhyming couplets in a rush, minus an editor or a rewrite.
Gray areas are glossed over or ignored. When, in “Big Box,” Young bemoans the death of small-town Main Street, the blame inevitably lies “down at the big-box store/People lined up for more” and not the capitalistic system that birthed it. When he indicts Monsanto, he does so as if reading from a list of talking points instead of exploring the complex equations that define technological progress. Yes, these are just songs, but they often read more like blind tirades than thoughtful op-eds.
Granted, Young’s always used his microphone as a bully pulpit. “This Note’s for You” is a stance against licensing music to advertise beverages. “Who’s Gonna Stand Up” wonders about the fate of the planet. “Motor City” lets loose on Japanese cars. Young’s usually on point and occasionally way ahead of the curve. On the 2006 song “Let’s Impeach the President,” he reported surveillance news long before Edward Snowden delivered evidence: “Let’s impeach the president for spying/ On citizens inside their own homes/ Breaking every law in the country/ By tapping our computers and telephones.”
That same sense of purpose is all over “The Monsanto Years,” and even if the ideas are painted in broad strokes, Promise of the Real isn’t messing around. Loose with dueling guitars, big distortion and pounding drums, the band turns “Rules of Change” into a grungy track best described as Neil Young inspired.
The title of “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” should be taken literally. A slam on Starbucks, Young explains, “Yeah, I want a cup of coffee/ But I don’t want a GMO/ I’d like to start my day off/ Without helpin’ Monsanto.” He then expounds on the corporate and political connections behind his denunciation — while he and the band whistle, bang and stomp.
Sound like a rockin’ good time? Not necessarily. This isn’t Young in romance mode or exploring life, aging, personal politics or poetry. This is Young the aged bellwether, raging about the state of the world with the focus of someone with little left to lose.
Neil Young & Promise of the Real
“The Monsanto Years”