Monday, 7 September 2015
Neil Young and The Promise Of The Real "The Monsanto Years" (2015)
Neil Young and The Promise Of The Real
A New Day For Love/Wolf Moon/People Want To Hear About Love/Big Box/A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee/Workin' Man/Rules Of Change/Monsanto Years/If I Don't Know
"It's a bad time to do nothin'!" or "Right side of left - right side of wrong!"
I would hate to get on the wrong side of Neil Young. Though it takes a lot to make him angry, once Neil's passion is roused it seems to be very hard for him to put that fire out. Where most singer-songwriters would turn a problem into a single song and forget about it the minute the studio lights go out, Neil can and does spend whole albums exploring what's on his mind and on his heart. Neil chooses his targets with care too: in the past only Richard Nixon and George Bush have felt the full force of his wrath but here it is again, this time aimed squarely at a company most famous for producing genetically modified crops. As far as I know no musician has ever had a go at a single company before - except the odd record label perhaps - but suddenly it all makes sense as Neil uses Monsanto as both a specific case of corruption and scandal everyone can relate to and as a wider metaphor for what has gone wrong with the world in the past few years (Starbucks gets quite a kicking too). 'Too rich for jail' Neil sighs, before sarcastically cackling 'Corporations have 'feelings', they're just like people - just harder to control!' Even more than 'Living With War, the anti-Iraq and Afghanistan war album from 2005, this sounds like the album it felt like Neil and his colleagues should be making in the wake of 'Ohio', standing up for those who don't have a voice and trying to add his own views to run alongside what gets reported in the media as the 'truth'. The biggest problem with this record is that its not the CSNY album it should be and that Neil's ability to get mad means that he's still mad at his old buddies who could have shaped this record from another promising-but-not-quite-there record into the comeback album of all time: this album seems built for burning Stills-Young guitar duels and angelic mocking harmonies and would have benefitted greatly from having a couple of songs by each of CSN to compare and contrast with. As with so many Neil albums recently, 'Monsanto' would have made a bigger impact still if it hadn't quite so much the same all the way through.
The band Neil has chosen to use is a god and rather apt one though. The Promise Of The Real are a 'new' band with some familiar old names in there, led by Neil's old pal Willie Nelson's sons Lukas and Mika and much like the 'Mirrorball' collaboration with Pearl Jam came about when Neil performed at Willie's annual charity event Farm Aid. Neil has been a regular performer since the first one thirty years earlier, a spin-off of 'Live Aid' held to raise money for American farmers struggling to cope with reduced Government grants and competitive prices. The band have been compared, rightly, to Crazy Horse, with a similarly open, simple heavy beat and layers of grungy feedback, but they're a slightly tighter version of the Horse, with a similar mix of beauty within all that noise. You can tell, too, that the whole band are 'together' on this issue and mean every word: it's unusual for Neil to co-credit a backing band these days that isn't the Horse but this is very much a heartfelt album that like many a Neil album of the past decade is better collection of performances than it is a strong set of songs. Going back to how the two halves of this band met, the fact that Neil showed up at all is interesting - while CSN played every possible benefit you could think (war veterans, anti-war protests, political prisoners, cut wages, exaggerated prison sentences, capitalism - the lot) Neil has been much pickier with his demonstrations; as a ranch-owner himself he recognises the struggles of living a life from the land and the irritation when politicians who've never spent a day in the city decide to change the rules on a whim. This album has struck many casual observers as strange - most musicians Neil's age are embracing Starbucks' record label and keeping their mouth shut after all. But keeping quiet has never been Neil's way and while typically it couldn't be less like the last record (2014's the guilty confessional 'Storytone') in many ways it's the pro-farming anti-meddling album we expected in 1970 (when CSNY split) or 1985 (when Neil first worked with Willie). Better late than never I guess...
Then again Monsanto is very much a tale of 21st century greed. The name probably doesn't mean much to non-American listeners (and maybe not even many of them) but is one I've been reading about with interest (and horror) whenever a new angle comes up (pollutants are one of the probably causes of my illness me/cfs so I take a particular interest in stories like these). Though the Missouri company dates back to 1901, when it mainly manufactured saccharine and sweeteners before moving on to plastics, the company made the headlines in 1983 when it created the first ever genetically modified crop. As far as the farmers are concerned Monsanto and their copycats' business model is a threat to their livelihood and way of life, with artificially created crops that are less nutritious and only have a single life-span (therefore killing off the 'crop rotation' cycle that keeps farmland arable and healthy) used because of their cheapness in the short-term, even though the dangers of them in the long-term are plain. Monsanto argue that farming is a business like any other and one they can do cheaper - and they even 'replied' to this album in a newspaper column in July this year saying that the record 'fails to reflect our strong beliefs in what we do every day to help make agriculture more sustainable. We recognise that there is a lot of misinformation about who we are and what we do - and unfortunately several of these myths seem to be captured in the album's lyrics'.
No doubt there are more than a few mistruths out there, spread by spurned employees or journalists out for a bit of sensationalism. It's also true, as some people have pointed out recently, that by throwing all his eggs in one basket and attacking one or two bad companies out of several hundred equally corrupt and greedy GMO manufacturers/monopolised industries Neil loses sight of the bigger picture: that Monsanto and Starbucks are the tip of an iceberg, a fact which isn't mentioned across these nine songs which all attack the same subjects. However, if anything Neil is too kind on the company by being similarly vague with his attacks, the general gist of this album being 'it's bad for the farmers and they shouldn't meddle' without many specifics. However the aspect of the Monsanto corporation that's been interesting me for years - and which Neil may have refrained from mentioning in lieu of a law suit - are the health implications. Though the company stopped using them in 1977 when it was brought to their attention, Monsanto used to be the largest American manufacturer of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls - which sounds like a great name for a punk band) used as a 'coolant' contained within wires in large electrical outlets such as power stations until somebody pointed out that they hadn't been tested in a laboratory yet and lots of people were in regular contact with them (and that the surfaces 'leaked' out the wires more than anyone had realised). Surprise Surprise, tests revealed that PCBs were an 'organic pollutant' and risked causing cancer growths in those who came into regular contact with them and the substance was finally banned in 1979. The Illinois plant was particularly busy manufacturing these and often dubbed waste material in the nearby river, the rather aptly nicknamed 'Dead Creek' ('one of the most polluted communities in the region' according to a Government enquiry). The company was then sued in 2002 for forty years of dumping poisonous waste such as mercury in Alabama (including a creek used as a main source of drinking water) and that PCB waste was dumped (admittedly with permission) in landfill sites across America. Monsanto ended up paying $700 million to sufferers who proved they had become ill as a result of their practices - although as the claims were spread across some 20,000 plaintiffs this didn't result to as large an amount as you might think. Even in Britain, one of Monsanto's subsidiary business got into trouble for dumping similar waste products in a quarry in Welsh valley Groes Faen - an inquiry found that 75 toxic substances were found there (to make things clear Monsanto did pay costs but did not accept responsibility for putting them there). As if that wasn't enough, Monsanto also sell a synthetic hormone that helps produce more quantities of milk in cows - even though the company's critics have complained about the quality of the milk and the wellbeing of the cows. Oh and a 'glysophate-resistant wheat' (which sounds like a prog-rock band) which was meant to be undergoing trial but was discovered being grown at a farm whose crops were intended for being turned into foodstuffs (it was never proved if the crop entered the food chain and to be fair Monsanto did destroy all prototype crops straight away). And Monsanto were also cited indirectly in a massive rise in suicides among farmer in India after consecutive crop failures left them unable to feed their families. And in Argentina where chap sales of GMO soybeans put several local businesses out of action. And a similar tale in Brazil. And more and more and more...
Clearly a company out to introduce something as radical as a new crop, altered by human touch, was always going to be controversial. But the sheer size of complaints stacked against Monsanto is beginning to make George Bush look like a moderate and loved world leader. Though it didn't make much splash in the mainstream news farmers the world over had enough and took part in a worldwide protest involving some 52 countries in May 2013, a feat repeated again the following year (though not, sadly, in 2015). If you've read this far then you might be wondering why the powers that be aren't stopping all of this - but the problem is that the powers-that-be are part of the problem not the solution. Monsanto have a lot of spare money to spend and like spending it on politicians: the 2008 American election saw the business donate some over $186,000 to US politicians and have close ties to British politicians too - the late 1990s saw no less than 22 meetings in 'secret' between politicians and Monsanto representatives while Stanley Greenburg, once Tony Blair's advisor, left politics to become a Monsanto consultant, with his successor David Hill become a consultant to another company Monsanto happened to have strong ties with. More worrying still, Monsanto don't just lobby the side that's most likely to agree with them - they've successfully been lobbying both sides and sending tonnes of money to every leading party both sides of the pond; politics will only work properly when there is a difference for people to elect. When businesses make sure that politicians vote their way every single time it's no longer a 'debate' or an 'issue that will help decide an election' - it's a decision already taken on our behalves about which we were often never even consulted. Clearly Monsanto have several tentacles in the places that matter, which means that while they do get fined and do get held to account, they're still able to run as a business after scandals that would have shut down smaller firms several times over. Just as 'Living With War' was really about the effects of war rather than war itself, so 'The Monsanto Years' is less about farming and more about betrayal, an attempt to fight back against a company that's become too rich and too powerful and which has clearly put lives in danger - if only by accident.
Neil also kicks Starbucks, who are a far more famous brand although perhaps even their influence hasn't yet spread as far Monsanto's. Their reply to this album, a rather puzzled 'We have not yet taken a position on the use of GMO Crops labelling', is a misnomer: 'Monsanto barely mentions GM crops but is instead about greed and corruption and bribery. To some extent, Starbucks sounds like a company after Neil's own heart: they're big on recycling and actually came 15th on a list of 'greenest companies' in 2008. However, it doesn't seem hard to think of a few reasons why Neil might think that they too have 'bucked' the high streets up. One of the major basics of capitalism is that competition helps keep costs down and allows the public to decide what works and what doesn't (they won't very well shop at a more expensive, less friendly shop with less range where the coffee tastes terrible if they can go across the road - although that still doesn't explain why some shops I know came to power). However that business model doesn't work if you then manage to buy out all your competitors and shutting them down - either directly or by artificial means such as opening multiple shops in one place and making sure they all do badly or opening a shop up without a license and ensuring it gets shut down quickly (sneaky ways around the 'fair trade' laws). Starbucks' mission statement is to get everyone drinking their coffee, which is fair enough; but if there is no other coffee to choose from then that becomes a different and scarier prospect. Add in the fact that Starbucks have decided to branch out into the record industry (with some nicely environmentally packaged but still rather odd compilations of people like John Lennon, who'd be spitting and writing his own protest albums about the chain if he could) and you can see why Neil is a tad concerned. Admittedly other chains and brands do this too, all of the time, but 'Starbucks' is an obvious target because it really is everywhere: even my home town has one and apart from four bakeries, seven charity shops and three bookmakers (seriously?!) and a rather wonderful bookshop there's hardly anything else here. And all this from a chain that none of us had even heard of fifteen or so years ago. Judging by the lyrics on this album, it sounds like it's the same in America.
Though I know it's all rather obvious to all of you reading this while the album is new but it's worth pointing out to people reading this in the future the context with which this album is being made. Our high streets are changing with supernatural speed in what looks like a process that cannot be reversed. The local family owned chains went first and now even the smaller brands famous from up and up down our countries are disappearing. Only the major corporations are hanging on - and each one is desperate to buy as many competitors and other businesses as they can so that they'll be the last ones standing. The Government used to stop this sort of thing in days gone by and during other recessions - but a bit of money and a bit here means they look the other way or delay inquiries looking into things that we should have been told about. It's becoming ever more serious in recent years because of the amount of people who know that they will get a new job and a fat pay cheque once they leave office with these companies, assuming they don't try and fight them too much. Time will tell whether this a human blip before we all come to our senses through albums like this one and demand changed with menaces or whether we're stuck like this and it's only going to get worse. It's worth pointing out though that most people believe that things really are going to get worse and that this is the background at which the album is made: after warning us about ecological concerns, politics and the environment for the past fifty years this is an album that sounds like a last chance which even Neil knows will be hard to turn back.
With so much politics and big business at the heart of this album, we haven't had much time yet to talk about the actual music. Though the record is as loose and raw as almost all of Neil's in the 21st century so far (the gorgeous 'Prairie Wind' being the exception), it's also slightly more together than other Young records of late. Though Neil too often sinks back into his speak-singing voice he uses when passing on a 'message' song that isn't one of his more personal numbers (a la 'Fork In The Road') there are also far more melodies and hummable songs here than normal. As per usual nowadays, the album badly needs some variety, given that all nine songs are angry rants that all sound vaguely similar and just come in at different tempos and are played on a few different instruments. However the 'main' song that gets repeated a lot throughout this album is at least a good one, far more interesting than the one that marks all eight songs on 'Greendale' for instance, with plenty of space for some terrific guitar solo-ing (the solo on 'A New Day For Love' is Neik's best work in the studio for years!) to sound loud and proud or treated to angelic if slightly shaky harmonies to sound delicate and fragile. Though the lyrics are still a long way away from the brilliant ambiguity and metaphor of old - sometimes saying the same things over and over, sometimes densely ambiguous and sometimes so direct the words come with a bigger sledgehammer than that distinctive guitar crunch - they are at last a good fit for the melodies, basic enough to make the points needed in the shortest time possible but also digging slightly deeper than that. As often happens with modern Young, most of the lyrics relate to people's treatment of the planet and how The Earth can't take much more. There are guilt lyrics about letting things get this bad, rants about what we're going to leave behind for our children, sarcastic asides about both companies' reputations as 'caring' industries and desperate cries for people to wake up and smell the un-genetically modified roses. Best of all, Neil has found his bite again and relishes sinking his fangs as deeply and as painfully as possible into the industries he attacks.
However, unlike the good old days of 'Ohio' (when there was a sense that people could still rally against Nixon and rise up against his treatment of 'us', the people who cared about what his policies did to other people like us) and even the slightly jovial 'what an ultra-maroon' album 'Living With War' (where George Bush was a figure of fun, as serious as the matter was) 'The Monsanto Years' lacks two things integral to making an album like this: humour and hope. Even Neil wonders why he's bothering to speak up against faceless corporations when he knows after fifty painful years of this sort of thing that the 1960s dream isn't working and that businesses make more money and reach more souls than artists could even in their heyday. The one great hope of the 1960s - that once the youth have become old men and are the ones at the top of their business tress, about to retire - is clearly dead now that the generation are in their 60s and 70s and things have got worse, not better. 'People Want To Hear About Love' is one of Neil's sulkiest songs, angry that people keep requesting love songs and close their ears to the politics they don't want to hear in his work (perhaps with memories of people walking out en masse during CSNY's 'Freedom Of Speech' tour in 2007). Even 'A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee', which waddles along with a typically comic Neil Young gait, stops being funny as soon as the whistling stops as Neil admits that this isn't really a rebellion anymore because there's no way 'we' can win ('with fascist politicians and chemical giants walking arm in arm'). The reason why this album so badly needs CSNY is that the main difference between them and Neil is that they still believe that things will get better - not now, perhaps, or even soon, but there's a hope in humanity in even CSN's most recent crop of songs that would have added just the right touch of humanity to this album. The one part that lets 'The Monsanto Years' down badly is that too much of this comes across as rockstar whinging, even the songs that effect everybody, all of us round the world and it's a record that seems to already know that its fighting a losing battle against two corporations and a practice simply too big to stop. Oh and just how many rhymes with 'Monsanto' can there be? Neil should have picked something easier to rhyme like 'Walmart' or 'KFC' as it sounds strange every time he says it (or was Monsanto's unrhymeable name all part of a giant scheme to prevent singer-songwriters taking the mickey out of them in song?!)
It's a shame too that there isn't just a little more to differentiate these songs. So many of these songs have clearly been harvested from the same source and come with the same rough 'n' ready backing tracks filled with big power pop choruses and guitar solos that arrive just so. Like many of the best albums in Neil's collection this is an album that already sounded like I'd been hearing it for years on first playing - but unlike 'Prairie Wind' or 'Sleeps With Angels' (which felt like they were always there in our-subconscious, waiting for Neil to find them and turn them into songs for us) too much of 'The Monsanto Years' just sounds like generic Young. There's that familiar guitar sound running through everything, that same shruggingly mad vocal delivery and lots of boom-chikka rhythm section that suggest somebody in the band has been listening to too much Johnny Cash. That's a shame because each track has something about it to love: 'A New Day For Love', with its lovely melody and gorgeous pleading harmonies and 'Big Box' with its urgent restlessness and sarcastic tales of passing by a boarded up Route 66 are my favourites, more melodic than many recent Neil pieces while the lyrics are sassier and smarter. Had these two songs appeared in the middle of another Neil Young album no doubt I'd have been requesting a whole album in the same vein - but the rest of the album brings diminishing returns. The more I play this album the more the simplistic 'Workin' Man' is standing out too, despite having one of the most generic Neil Young chord progressions of them all, used several times in the past (it's 'World On A String' meets 'Born In Ontario' meets 'Motor City' stuck in a blender). 'Wolf Moon' is the acoustic country song I was fearing when I heard the 'Willie Nelson' name linked with this album (although it's still prettier than anything on 'Old Way', the album the pair made together back in 1983), 'People Want To Hear About Love' is one long rant without any break or change and 'A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee' isn't anywhere near as clever as it thinks it is (and an odd choice as a lead-off single, though I suppose more people have heard of Starbucks than Monsanto). The final trio is particularly difficult to sit through: 'Rules Of Change' is an uncomfortably sung blues which ironically breaks too many musical rules itself matched only by the painfully slow dragging beat of 'The Monsanto Years' itself, a track which makes even 'Vampire Blues' and 'Words (Between The Lines Of Age)' look sturdy on their feet. 'If I Don't Know' is even slower and simpler, although this one at least has the good grace to be beautiful and remarkably haunting, a powerful eulogy for the rest of the album even if its music to sleep to, not to rock to.
What transforms 'The Monsanto Years' from another Neil Young album that's often a struggle to sit through into a powerful, memorable artistic statement are the performances - the one major improvement this album has on the last few albums ('Chrome Dreams II' 'Fork In The Road' 'Psychedelic Pill' and 'Storytone'). The Promise Of The Real have understood that oh so tricky factor in becoming a great Neil Young backing band: playing simply and slowly so as not to sink the star turn, but also loudly and with lots of heart. I am still convinced that this band is not who they were billed as but are actually Crazy Horse circa 'Zuma' in 1975 who happen to have been moved forward in time through a genetically modified time machine. The wobbly vocals, the distorted guitar, the thick and sturdy drumming, the nearly-one-note bass playing; heck there's one of the vocalists who sounds like a genetically modified hybrid of Horse guitarists Danny Whitten and Frank Sampedro. Though all of Neil's bands have brought something to the table and shone a light on a slightly different aspect of Neil's many muses, this one is fully in the great Crazy Horse tradition of playing with as much noise and power and energy as possible, with some terrific guitar meshing and that surreal feel common to a few Neil Young records where the slower yet longer the band play the faster and more claustrophobic the sound feels. Having a band there he can trust and rely on (which hasn't always been the case with Crazy Horse, though 'Pill' was a step in the right direction) inspires Neil to his finest too. All too often his most recent albums have been sung more out of duty than passion and the recent covers album 'A Letter Home' was in fact his worst vocal album even with taking the deliberately lo-fi recording into account. Neil just didn't have his heart in any of those songs and sounded as if he couldn't wait to get home to be honest, caught at a very lost and troubled time after the media fallout over the revelation of his affair with actress Daryl Hannah. 'The Monsanto Years' however has fired his engine room up nicely and his singing is glorious throughout, meaning every single word he sings and ratcheting up the tension layer by layer in every song. As many great Neil vocals as there were in the past, 'Bog Box' is at least close to classics like 'Old Man' 'A Man Needs A Maid' and 'Dangerbird'.
Overall, then, 'The Monsanto Years' is another mixed Neil Young record - albeit with more positives and slightly less caveats than normal. Neil chooses the perfect targets for his withering wit and sarcasms and gives a voice to something so many of us have been longing to hear for so long. It's a shame that there isn't just a little bit more leeway and variety across this album, room for songs that explore Monsanto through the eyes of those who have lost loved ones because of it for instance, farmers put out of business by faulty crops or worried about their damaged livestock while denied compensation or workers forced to spend their time with an organisation they know represents the devil there because they're the only businesses left in town and people gotta eat. Oddly what should be one of Neil's most humane records has less humanity than almost all his others, full of wild swinging attacks against corporations and politicians without any real sense of the smaller damage. It's the difference between a person experiencing something firsthand that makes them angry and reading about it in the paper. However that said there's no doubting the commitment in Neil's vocal or his passionate guitar playing and as we've seen before in Neil's career, when his empathy is at his best he can turn even newspaper columns into moving pieces that say all that needs to be said ('Ohio'). 'The Monsanto Years' isn't quite that great album that's been coming for the last six or so and is sure to arrive any year now, honest, one where everything works, every track sounds different and every song sounds like buckets were sweated over it rather than being tossed off before the muse moves on to something else. However, in common with all the albums since 'Chrome Dreams', it's another step forward in the right direction, with some swinging songs that are brave and worthy and doing exactly what someone in Neil's position should be doing: speaking out, whatever it costs him. let's hope that the Monsanto Years are short, but that this album's shelf-life is long.
The Monsanto Years' opening track 'A New Day For Love' opens with the single most unexpected sound on the whole record - a jingle-jangle very Byrdsy 60s Rickenbacker that offers a hope and grace before the opening is swept aside by the usual Neil Young crunch. Depressing as much of the rest of the album is, this is one last great moment of hope as Neil imagines the sun shining down on the Earth as mother nature illuminates what mankind are up to and everyone revolts in one glorious movement. Both the opening and the lyric make this a very 1960s sort of a song, a sequel of sorts to 'Walk Like A Giant', with Neil pretending that he and his colleagues still have the power to change the world through music and his performance is so committed and energetic you half believe it yourself. There are some glorious bursts of guitar work across this song, as Neil peals off from his visions of a brighter future with some of his most soaring sounds. 'It's a bad day to do nothin' screams Neil as he imagines the modern world as a showdown where the greedy world leaders have all come to shoot the inhabitants and nobody is there to shoot them back, even travelling past the graveyards of those who died on their behalf lying unloved and uncared for in the middle of nowhere. Neil realises that, almost uniquely in the modern world, he still has a voice - of sorts - and a following - well ish - and he's damn well going to use them, struggling to sum up all his confused feelings over the modern world and finding it all comes down to a plea: 'protect our precious planet!' Easily the highlight of the album, rooted in the folk protest Neil has always admired but with a terrific guitar attack that's Neil at his best, this song manages to be both realistic and hopeful, mournfully sad and deliriously happy, desperate and confident all at the same time. It really does sound like a new day for love the way Neil sings it here.
'Wolf Moon' gets Neil's traditional lone-acoustic-song-on-an-electric-album out the way early and is perhaps the most traditional song here. Neil sings painfully high above his own wobbly harmonica and lazily strummed guitar on the most personal song on the album, one that sounds as if it belongs on the more confessional 'Storytone' than here. If 'Harvest Moon' was the peak of Neil's songs of cosy intimacy and love with former wife Pegi, then 'Wolf Moon' is the negative effect - the lowest moment of their relationship with that glorious full moon hidden by storm clouds. However even though Neil feels that the light of his life has been blotted out, he still feels grateful just to have gotten through it and to still be alive. Neil thanks the wolf moon for rising and the 'big sky' for the parting clouds on the horizon: it's ben difficult, the song says, but we got through and the musical inspiration is beginning to flow back through his veins, 'seeds of life in glowing fields of wheat' that ;like 'The Fields Of Opportunity' on 'Comes A Time' are ready for harvesting once more. People who don't understand Neil and how his brain works might be wondering what on earth this confession of doubt and hard times is doing on this album - clearly referring to Neil's marital problems of the past few years. However it also makes perfect sense; now that Neil is more honest with himself and us he's feeling at one with nature again and much of this song is set in a field with him looking up at the skies waiting for them to part. In a strange way it's as if Neil's 'lies' to himself and the absolution he feels with the universe remind him of artificial GM crops: they look like the real from a distance but cause inner pain and suffering. Alas a promising song rather gets away with the weakest performance on the album and even though thematically this song fits, musically it still sounds as if it doesn't really belong with these others at all.
Though not quite as bad some other horrors from recent albums, 'People Want To Hear About Love' is the track works least well for me. I can see what Neil is trying to do: his fans want to hear more about his love life, teasingly dangled before us in last album 'Storytone' and think that Neil has something he wants to get off his chest. They certainly don't want to hear a song about politics or giant companies. 'Don't mention global poverty' he cackles, 'they just want to hear about global love, because it'll make them feel alright'. However that seems a tad disingenuous from a man who must know his fanbase can and have followed him through everything - rockabilly albums lasting twenty minutes, a soap opera about the most boring town outside Eastenders and a whole album of songs about environmental cars. Especially the CSNY half of his fanbase, who've been clamouring for Neil to make this sort of brutish political attack for decades; personally I'd much rather hear Neil aiming barbed attacks at people who deserve it than trying to write bad love songs. People don't want to hear about love - at least judging by the sluggish sales of 'Storytone' - and if Neil really is so dismissive of songs about global peace then why tease us with the brilliance of this album's opening track? Luckily the song almost gets away with things thanks to a typically fine performance by The Promise Of The Real who give Neil plenty of space to soar, with a trio of guitar solos in the middle, and a heartfelt Neil vocal that unlike some others of recent years is clearly being performed live with the rest of the song. However there's no getting round the fact that this is the simplest and most sloganeering song on what is quite a simple and sloganeering sort of album where Neil's sentiment is at its worst.
Just as you're beginning to despair a little, in sweeps 'Big Box', a majestic Young song that's built on the single most 70sy set of chord changes since 'Rust Never Sleeps' although thematically it's 'Crime In The City' a quarter century on. Neil is at his wordy best here, sounding more like Woody Guthrie or Joan Baez as he pours scorn on the modern world with its boarded up shops and its rich business owners, as the people who don't 'get' what's taken place under their noses 'lining up to ask for more'. Businesses can get away with murder by simply paying a fine to a Government who never pass it down to the people while big business 'control the food we eat to the clothes we wear to the TV screen, from the air we breathe to the fuel we burn'. The Western world has become indoctrinated into turning a blind eye, desperate to hang on to the tiny bit of the ladder they have left and suffering through no blame of their own while those who caused the problems in the first place are 'too rich for jail'. Neil wonders sarcastically why they can get away with this. He was brought up to believe that everyone is equal in a democracy and that 'they're just like you and me', with a single vote just like the rest of us and barely hides his disgust as he spits out 'their' arguments to the rest of us: corporations have feelings, corporations have soul, they're just like people - only harder to control!' However the truth of this hard-hitting song is that 'they don't want to fall - which is why they fall on you!' Neil gets angrier and angrier as the song moves on, interrupted only by some ghostly mocking harmonies from the business leaders in the middle, powering his guitar up notch by notch up to the point where the song is sizzling by the end. Alas the song doesn't come to the big finish we're expecting but sort of fizzles out a la 'Ragged Glory'. However full marks for leaving the bit of studio banter at the beginning, which mainly consists of a raucous laugh fully in keeping with the theme of the song. The powers that be are laughing at us for not having the power to fight back. The sort of song CSNY should have been recording years ago and one of the best Neil Young songs in years, pithy witty and based around some glorious chord changes played by a cooking band all coming from the same page. Even at 8:17 it doesn't outstay it's welcome and could have run for much longer.
'A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee' sounds like the unwanted return of the Shocking Punks, a rockabilly song with a funny gait and lots of demented whistling. Neil clearly likes his coffee, but he's getting fed up at having no choice and that the biggest firm has big ties with GMO crops. 'Monsanto' Neil yells in the chorus, 'let our farmers grow what they want to grow!' Neil's complaint seems to be that Starbucks don't tell their customers where their coffee is sourced from, saying 'mothers want to know what to feed their children'. However it seems odd that Neil should pick so specifically on one chain when it's a whole practise and culture that are doing this - Starbucks is only one of many businesses doing something similar in order to cut corners and make more profits and the 'real' villain, the Grocery Manufacturers Alliance who 'allow' this sort of thing (with the occasional caveat) get only a single line. Alas the comedy backing doesn't fit well with what's another impassioned song that only really takes fire when the band stop trying to be funny and soar on some excellent CSNY-style harmonies.
'Workin' Man' adds a bit of fire back to proceedings with the simplest rocker on the album. At last Neil stops talking about generalisations and starts talking about specifics, of the farmers he befriended - 'back in '96' when he started doing more gigs raising money for farmers - and paints an idyllic picture of himself as a fellow ranch owner 'planting seeds and talking weather'. Then things changed: the supreme court legalised GMO crops, Neil specifying Clarence Thomas of the United States Supreme Court as one who pushed for the decision (the fact that Neil's 'other' target George Bush nominated him for his seat is probably more than just a coincidence too). Suddenly where there used to be friendliness and brotherhood there's suspicion: the farmers finds not friends but men with briefcases talking about taking him to court and offering a threat: 'You're gonna need big money to stand your ground, or we're gonna bury you - now how does that sound?' Against big businesses turning major profits the poor farmers haven't got a chance and either have to adapt and work with the enemy or go out of business. The song all but comes with a finale saying 'and this is your country...ladies and gentlemen' in true David Crosby style as Neil's anger boils and simmers over. Thankfully the lyrics are more interesting than some others on the album, making GMO crops a more human issue than some of the debating on the rest of the album. The music is rather good too, with Neil turning in a nicely suitable country feel thanks to some Bob Dylanesque harmonica set against a hard-hitting rock rhythm that through three guitarists is always doing something interesting behind the words.
Alas the album takes a slight downwards turn at the end of this album. 'Rules Of Change' is perhaps a slogan too far, with some of the most juvenile and over-written lines on the album ('No one owns the sacred land, no man's law can change that') and the single most forgettable melody on the album, played at such a slow tempo that all the earlier energy and optimism has burnt away. However the song still isn't that bad: there's a marvellously 'chugging' sound from Neil's guitar that sounds suitably mean and dark, while the chorus about the drift away from liberalism back to conservatism 'wrong side of right, right side of wrong' is rather clever and a welcome rebuttal from the man who once thought Ronald Reagan had some good ideas. There's a clever idea at the heart of this song too - that just as the GMO crop seeds have spread throughout America, landing randomly and growing as the plant does, so has the feeling that this is acceptable behaviour that isn't going to be challenged by anyone. A little more of the passion felt across the rest of the album might yet have made this a decent song.
Title track 'Monsanto Years' (it's dropped the 'the' from the album title) sounds suspiciously like a song from 'Fork On The Road', a slow chugging blues that has a few good ideas but runs out of things to say early on. The lines are long, some of the longest Neil has written, and reads more like prose or poetry than song lyrics at times ('You never know what the future holds in the shallow soil of Monsanto'). This time Neil slightly switches tack to moan about the use of pesticides harmful to the environment and the blind faith that the public has in the safety of their foods, 'poison-ready, the way the corporation needs'. Contrasted against this reality is the way the food is advertised, Neil imagining a smiling happy family of farmers against a red barn (picking on supermarket 'Safeways' even though they all do something similar) before switching back to the pressurised farmer doing what he's told and fearing for his next pay packet. This verse also brings to mind the clever album cover as drawn by drummer Anthony Logerfo, which pictures Neil as a snarling farmer with a pitchfork, a parody of Grant Wood's famous painting 'American Gothic (compared to the original Neil looks as if he'd about to do something nasty with his pitchfork!) There's also perhaps the cleverest line of the whole album: 'The seeds that were once the gift of God are now delivered by Monsanto' - as with so much of Neil's work the idea of man thinking he can be better than nature brings out his sarkiest, bitterest side. However its the music that prevents this song from really taking off: it's a crawl that at 7:46 seems at least twice as long and for the only time across the album the fact that there are three guitarists all doing their own thing actually hurts the album as we wait for them all to have a solo over and over again.
Thankfully the very final song 'If I Don't Know' is the best of the album's slow songs, the opposite of where the album came in with Neil sighing that all of his 'big ideas' are probably for nothing and that he and his small band of followers alone can't stand against the tide of a current this strong. However instead of giving in, Neil accepts that he can't prevent the Monsanto method happening and looks towards calming the impact. Mankind has to wake up to the real horrors sometime, he figures, even if it's a realisation that will probably come after he'd dead and buried in some Monsanto-sponsored graveyard, so he sets out trying to keep his grandchildren and their generation safe. In three short verses Neil makes a moving statement that even though he knows the world is doomed he'll still keep speaking out on the planet's behalf, matching the songs in his veins for every last drop of oil forced out of the soil. 'If the melodies stay pretty and the songs are not too long, I'll get them back to you' Neil promises his listeners and the Earth, oddly putting his fingers on the two aspects of this song that are probably the weakest links. There's a nice chord progression that's stately and sombre, though, about as far removed from 'A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee' as its possible to get, and there's a lovely moment when he hits each of the three simple one-line choruses, surrounded by pretty harmonies and a chord sequence that slowly descends into chaos before pulling itself out from the murk. Like much of the album, 'If I Don't Know' is a thoughtful and well crafted work played by an expert band of musicians - but a little bit of variety and a touch of speed would have made it even better.
That was 'The Monsanto Years' then, an unusual crop from Neil's imagination which offers much encouragement for the future - both in terms of Neil's muse and the rebellion necessary to sort out the GMO mess - without quite reaching the peaks you hope its going to reach after the opening song. Hearing a whole album on one source, with several similar takes on the same subject, will not be for everybody but I rather like the idea of Neil giving this subject the time and space it needs and all but forcing reviewers to at least comment on the Monsanto issue and what it is instead of just reviewing this as a random set of songs. Neil has done Mother Earth proud once again and the band do him and daddy Willie Nelson proud along the way - even if its tragedy that CSNY couldn't patch up their differences for an album tailor-made for them. I just wish there'd been a few more songs here with a slightly different angle and a few more songs akin to the blissful hopefulness of 'A New Day For Love' and the personal outrage of 'Big Box' and 'Workin' Man' rather than the slightly over-simple repetitive songs that make up the rest of the album. Putting three such similar slowies together at the end without any switch back to rock at the end is also a bad move, making this album seem longer and more boring than it really is. However few of us fans were expecting a perfect Neil Young album - it's been a long time since we had one of those - and 'The Monsanto Years' has more going for it than most Young albums of recent years, with both Neil's heart and his guitar back in their right places at last. You wouldn't want every Neil Young album to sound like this one, but sometimes an artist has to take a stand for what they believe in and this lesser-known cause that affects practically all of us is one that singer-songwriters should have taken a stand on decades ago. Though music - especially music by a septuagenarian with falling record sales - perhaps can't change the world like it used too, that's no reason not to try and this album has done a lot of good by raising issues and even if a few fans stop drinking in Starbucks and eating GMO foodstuffs then this album will have done something. Personally I find Starbucks coffee undrinkable and woefully expensive anyway (I've got all these Neil Young CDs to buy after all - that costs a fortune!) and try to use as little GMO food-sources as I can without starving (it's more difficult than you might think). But now, thanks to Neil, people like me feel less of a lone voice in the wilderness and can long for the day when there are more of us who want to see us farm without doing any harm. Without meaning to crow, could the end be nigh for Monsanto?