Neil Young and The Promise of The Real The Monsanto Years

[Warner Bros.; 2015]

Styles: protest, rock, liberal
Others: Who But Neil Young?

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. At 69, Neil Young still claims considerable respect and attention, with good reason: he wrote some of the best pop music of the second half of the 20th century. But protest music is not easy. It is not easy, and, because of the inherent seriousness of its mission, it is more time-sensitive, more capable of aging poorly or immediately failing, than even the most faddish novelty songs. The reason some still get chills hearing early Bob Dylan or Crass or Public Enemy has less to do with having “been there” — though that has its own emotional matrix — than with a certain kind of energy so intense that it lives in the songs, codified and, for the right audience, immortal, accessible. A balancing act is necessary, plucking strategically from both extremes of the art: on one side, honest though alienating zeal; on the other, a too-situated, too on-the-nose politics aging immediately and quickly, as if in dog years.

Sadly, Neil Young’s The Monsanto Years has too little of the speed, appeal, and lucidity needed to pull off a 21st-century “protest” album. Such a form itself begins to fail here in this second decade of the new millennium. Young’s balancing act tends to sag toward the latter of the two aforementioned options, with obvious and basically universal anti-corporate lyrics (as in, who doesn’t think Walmart or Monsanto are soulless, evil companies?) becoming increasingly hard to ignore, to “believe in,” with each passing listen. The message is often muddled or, worse, already trampled into cliché by the 24/7 awareness of our era’s activism. Songs like “Big Box” or “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” stand tall on their soapbox, but find it quite cardboard, quite wet, and sink back down to the street in less time than their bloated runtimes.

Young has, of late, made a few questionable choices, always throwing himself fully into some feud or absurd capitalist endeavor, a fact that makes the lukewarm liberal ecocentrism of the album feel hollow or contradictory. How can a star signed to Warner Bros. take such self-assured swings at Starbucks or even a well-established popular villain like Monsanto? At that, what makes Young the champion of the American farmer?

Because the album risks so much in its all-in politics, the songs on their own are more difficult to judge. For that reason, the album is enjoyable almost solely in small doses: “People Want to Hear About Love” is classic Young, a litany of what he sees as the key problems our age faces, all obfuscated by the listening public’s desire for saccharine pop songs about artificial love, utilizing the albums awkward politics better (though to be taken with a salt lick) than any of the more explicitly “fuck GMOs” songs. Similarly, opening track “A New Day for Love” is an inoffensive, reverb-y, and engagingly hopeful introduction to the album’s sound, if not its awkward polemics. Just ignore how the song eye-rollingly refers to the earth as “our precious gift.”

“Workin’ Man,” a hard rockin’ recapitulation of the vaguely recent controversies surrounding Monsanto’s patenting of GMO seeds and the effect such a move has on the titular laborer, is host to the best examples of the album’s flaws and virtues. The band, The Promise of The Real (like, real corn?), is at its best here, with guitars as full and raw as anything Crazy Horse ever played. In fact, the band is great throughout the album, one of its best features, alongside, believe it or not, Young’s voice. “Workin’ Man” also contains some of the most clunky lyrics on the album (alongside the following track, “Rules of Change,” which we will refrain from covering at all here…): “We’re from Monsanto, we own the seeds;” “We’re gonna sue, take you to court.” You get the idea. No need to scoff when, a few tracks later, on “Monsanto Years,” Young literally moans “Monsantoooo” as the dirge’s hook. OK, you can scoff, no one will blame you.

The Monsanto Years is a risk — that much feels inarguable. Whatever else the listener finds within these strange passes of simultaneously corporate (music industry) and anti-corporate (food industry) screeds depends largely on one’s love of Young’s spotty recent work and one’s hatred* of Monsanto and environs. In 10 years, when all of our apples and corn cobs have “Monsanto” bio-inked onto their flesh and husk, I might feel pretty stupid for this review. Until then, I’ll side with my proverbial gut (full, in all likelihood, of GMO lasagna) in saying that this album is no more than a curiosity in two histories: Young’s career and that of 21st-century protest music.

* For clarity, this reviewer does resent the corporate food industry and, to be frank, everything Young fights against here. Which is to say, the issue is not with Young’s politics in essence, but in form.

Links: Neil Young and The Promise of The Real - Warner Bros.

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