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Neil Young and Promise of the Real, ‘The Monsanto Years': Album Review


Much of Neil Young‘s best work sounds like it happened spontaneously. From the raging guitar jams on Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere to the hopeless frustration of Tonight’s the Night to Rust Never Sleeps, a collection of new songs mostly recorded live, the veteran singer-songwriter is at his most interesting when he doesn’t think too hard about his music.

Whenever he applies too much thought and time to a project — like 1982’s electronic mess Trans and last year’s big-band and orchestra escape, Storytone — the results sound labored, stifled and boring. For his 36th studio album, The Monsanto Years, Young didn’t overthink the concept. He heard about agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto, got pissed off and hammered out nine songs with Promise of the Real, a roots-rock band led by country legend Willie Nelson‘s sons Lukas and Micah.

It’s not a great album, and it pretty much amounts to a 50-minute political rant, but The Monsanto Years feeds its rage through loud guitars, some jagged melodies and an energized Young, who sings like he has something to prove. Not that he really has at this point. The Monsanto Years marks Young’s fifth album since 2012, a period that not only includes the shaky Storytone, but also the low-fi acoustic A Letter Home, an LP of traditional songs recorded with longtime collaborators Crazy Horse, Americana, and Psychedelic Pill, a double-record freak-out with Crazy Horse that’s one of his recent keepers.

At its best, The Monsanto Years sounds like a Crazy Horse record; at its worst, it’s a tossed-off PSA about the horrors of GMOs that will most likely go down as this decade’s Greendale or Fork in the Road, two Young albums from last decade that took on similar environmental issues. Unlike those two LPs, The Monsanto Years plugs in and channels its aggression through straightforward and clear-cut — as well as angry and righteous — songs.

It doesn’t start out that way. Young begins the album with the hopeful “A New Day for Love” and “Wolf Moon,” a stripped-down acoustic number complete with plaintive Harvest-era harmonica. Even “People Want to Hear About Love,” amid all the distorted guitars, reads like a mental note from Young to keep his opinions to himself: “Don’t talk about the corporations hijacking all your rights / Don’t mention world poverty, talk about global love.” But it’s not long before he starts choking on his words, setting up the finger-pointing of “Big Box” and “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop.”

The agriculture giant — which has come under fire in recent years for its use of genetically modified seeds — isn’t the only target on The Monsanto Years. Walmart and Starbucks are also specifically named by Young; “I want a cup of coffee, but I don’t want a GMO,” he sings. “I like to start my day off without helping Monsanto.” And as his ire grows, so does the volume of the music and the fury in his voice. Stinging guitars collide with harmonica, this time sounding like it was blown in by a hurricane, on “Workin’ Man,” and Young rattles off words in “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” like a half-dozen thoughts are fighting for space in his head.

The Monsanto Years often plays like the musical equivalent of that: a guy fed up with big business and environment abusers who speaks out before he has a chance to collect his thoughts. But as he’s proven before, Young thrives in these situations. For all his restlessness and proficiency (hard to believe he actually has enough unreleased material in the can for an archives series), he’s also remarkably consistent in his devotion to his projects. Even when they’re as loose and as impulsive as this one.

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