The Monsanto Years

Neil Young & Promise Of The Real

Reprise, 2015

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray


Arriving almost a decade after his last protest album, Living With War, Neil Young and a new band of youngsters (compared to Crazy Horse, anyway) takes on corporate and political greed and environmental damage on The Monsanto Years. The title explicitly refers to the seed and chemical company Monsanto (which produces genetically modified seeds and used to produce stuff like Agent Orange and DDT), but they are hardly the only targets here; Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Citizens United, Chevron and others are called out by name as contributors to our country’s sad state of affairs.

Folk music has long been about both storytelling and commenting on current events, and Young affirms that second purpose here. The nine songs revolve around the central themes stated above, with American apathy thrown in for good measure. Obviously, Young leans liberal, so there’s a built-in audience who will hate this and love this regardless of any other factors. Such is life, especially with an election looming next year.

For those without preexisting opinions on such matters, Young’s plaintive, sarcastic, churlish-but-wise old coot persona remains appealing, and it’s difficult not to get caught up in his pleas for people to pay attention to current events, for farmers to grow what they want and for political and corporate greed to have some sort of check/balance system. “People working part-time at Walmart / Never get the benefits for sure,” Young notes in “Big Box.” “In the streets of the capital, corporations are taking control / Democracy crushed at their feet … Main Street’s boarded up now, the whole town’s asleep…Out at the big box store, people lined up for more.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Promise Of The Real is no Crazy Horse, but they don’t need to be. Young keeps the music firmly in his wheelhouse, adding a few short solos where needed but not expanding beyond the palette he has followed since 1989’s Freedom. Much like Living With War, though, the music is secondary to the message, although – as on the whistling, cheerful “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” and the driving, multilayered “Big Box” – the music perfectly drives home the point of the song. “Wolf Moon” breaks from the pack (sorry) a little bit, sounding like a Harvest Moon outtake with its simple acoustic guitar and harmonica lead and simple words evoking the beauty of nature.

Still, this means the songs – many of which are repetitive beyond an initial riff, like the title song, the slow “Rules Of Change,” and the awkward, humdrum opener “A New Day For Love” – just don’t have staying power, and once the topical events and companies referenced fade into obscurity, this won’t be a disc that fans clamor to listen to repeatedly. The best songs on Living With War mixed timeless truths with great music (like “The Restless Consumer”), and even now people who listen to it may wonder what a Rumsfeld is or what the “war” of the title was all about. I only say that because not only is Jeb Bush running for president in 2016, but he is actually leading the Republican field…which means people are seriously considering electing a third Bush to the White House. I nominate Daily Vault founder Christopher Thelen to run instead…at least something would get done.

Anyway. Although “Big Box” is the best song, “People Want To Hear About Love” is the most pointed jab at everyone, especially we Americans who care more about entertainment news and YouTube videos about cats than the real world. “Don't talk about the corporations hijacking all your rights / Don’t mention world poverty, talk about global love / Don’t say how Citizens United has killed democracy / Don’t say pesticides are causing autistic children / Don’t say people don’t vote because they don’t trust the candidates…People want to hear about love.”

As a timely manifesto, like its predecessor, The Monsanto Years hits as hard as any other current political rock document (not that there are many, except maybe Muse’s Drones) and affirms one of folk rock’s longstanding traditions. As a rock album, and a Young album, this falls in the same middle ground as much of his post-1992 work: solid, a couple good songs, but not much more than that.

Rating: B-

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© 2015 Benjamin Ray and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Reprise, and is used for informational purposes only.