Neil tackling complex issues
It’s not often an album release could warrant an op-ed piece. Neil Young’s latest foray, his 36th, is such an album. There are good and bad reasons why that is so. But first let’s get something out of the way: the new record titled, The Monsanto Years, deals with some important issues, namely the multinational corporation the album is named for, the specter of genetically modified foods and the Citizens United decision of 2010 to name a few. The other thing about the album, hard as it is to admit, is these are not the best-executed protest songs lyrically speaking.
Musically speaking, there a number of interesting things about the album and some classic Neil Young. Young is notorious for switching up musical partners as it suits the music and as it suits the theme he’s going for. For this record he’s employed a brand new band, The Promise of the Real. This band includes Micah and Lukas Nelson, sons of Young’s partner in all things Farm Aid, Willie Nelson. These musicians have successfully achieved the raw rock and chunka-chunka rhythms of Crazy Horse with hints of extra flare that allow Young to mix things up. For example, in the midst of the unmistakable sounds of Young cranking out the rock licks, you get the slower paced, acoustic “Wolf Moon” that feels like something off of Prairie Wind or Harvest Moon. In the past, Young seems to have kept that world and the Crazy Horse world separate, but here he blends the sounds together.
The other right tracks hammer you over the head with riffs and the message ‘local is good, multinational is bad.’ Song titles such as “Big Box,” “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” and the title track “Monsanto Years” leave little to the imagination, as do the lyrics. Lines like “Too big to fail, too rich for jail” and “I’d like to start my day off without helping Monsanto” tell the listener exactly what Young feels about these issues without the poetry of his dated and best-executed protest song “Ohio.” But when an icon like Neil Young comes out with a protest record, he can say whatever the hell he wants in any way he wishes to say it.
One of the more insightfully searing, though no more subtle, songs on the album is titled “People Want to Hear About Love.” It essentially calls people out for not wanting to hear these issues dealt with in music that is supposed to be fun and pleasant. Fulfilling Young’s critique, the reviews and op-ed pieces about this record have already started dropping. Many of them don’t come right out and say they don’t want to hear it (though some do) but more mock Young’s approach. One publication took the step of asking Monsanto for a reaction, and an op-ed piece blamed Young and Greenpeace for increasing starvation of the world’s poor. This all obscures the fact Young’s chosen issues are very real and very complex issues. Corporate control of the food system and the disempowerment of local communities are not talked about enough and certainly are covered only cursorily in the mainstream media.
Young has made the decision to use his platform to raise further awareness of these issues, however awkwardly. To become better informed about these issues of course, people should look to experts and luminaries like Dr. Vandana Shiva and Michael Pollan to name a few. Perhaps a caveat like this belongs in the liner notes of the record. As it stands, Young has made a record only he can get away with; it’s just unfortunate the message is given in such black and white terms.