Release Date: June 15, 2015
Neil Young does whatever the hell he wants. There’s a precedent for this in his long, prolific career — now approaching forty solo albums — but it’s been especially true of late. In the last five or so years, we got Crazy Horse back in action to, uh, record a bunch of traditionals and then a bunch of superlong jams; we got a concept album about Young’s converted hybrid Lincoln. We got the twin 2014 valleys of Young-not-giving-a-damn-what-you-want in A Letter Home, a Record Store Day release of covers recorded in an old-timey 1947 Voice-o-Graph booth at Third Man Records — because of course that’s what Young and Jack White would do when they got together — and Storytone, featuring Young backed by an orchestra, in case you ever wondered what a song called “I Want to Drive My Car” would sound like backed by a big band. Then, of course, there’s the somewhat-pilloried PonoPlayer/PonoMusic, which in a larger sense plays into Young’s increasingly get-off-my-lawn attitude about technology and recording techniques.
So, the man’s been a bit all over the place, and he’s not going to course-correct in 2015. This week, Young’s latest pet project comes in the form of The Monsanto Years, an album he recorded with Willie Nelson’s kids, Micah and Lukas, along with the latter’s band Promise of the Real. Like 2009’s Fork in the Road before it, it’s a concept album dealing with a politically and/or ecologically charged issue Young’s passionate about: the agriculture company Monsanto, who Young had already criticized in the past. An anti-GMO protest record didn’t sound like the most galvanizing listen for a rock record, but even with a few wild misfires to his name this is Neil Young we’re talking about, so maybe it could work out.
And things do actually start off alright here, with a lot of music that’s solid latter-day Young. The Monsanto Years begins with “New Day For Love,” which after a few chiming notes kicks up that always-recognizable Young guitar crunch, even if it’s a bit mollified compared to when Crazy Horse is behind him. But this is a concept/protest record about Monsanto, and unless your blood boils as intensely about the issue as Young’s, the protest element of that is handled so clumsily that it sinks the album entirely.
The album’s centerpiece, the ridiculously titled “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” is symbolic of the whole failed enterprise. Straight-up annoying whistling punctuates the track, surrounding a chorus of trembling high notes that goes “Monsanto / Let our farmers grow / What they want to grow” or “Monsanto / Mothers want to know / What they feed their children.” The core issue here is there’s not a whole lot of nuance or vision to it all, littered with lines like “Too big to fail / Too rich for jail,” or “I want a cup of coffee / But I don’t want a GMO / I’d like to start my day off / Without helping Monsanto.” Melodies are subservient to the message throughout, with Young often awkwardly squawking his way around the bluntest of commentary. Eventually, as it’s become sadly and increasingly easy with some of Young’s passion projects of late, you just feel like “Alright, man, I get it.”
The bones of a decent Young album are here, with a lot of instrumentation that is trademark Young — maybe not distinguishing itself from anything from his past, but it could’ve been a pretty good late-career addition. But the man can only talk so long about farmers, or about chemical giants arm-in-arm with fascist politicians, before it begins to feel like a parody of a Neil Young record, a parody of a protest record. By the time you get to the repeated, cartoonishly lumbering invocation of “Monsanto” (and, lest we forget, Safeway!) in the title track, it almost feels like it’s coming from Spinal Tap.
It’s hard to shit on a legend for his late-period flights of fancy, especially when it has a noble cause, and Young has already given us enough masterworks to outstrip the careers of many others. But of all of the classic-rock greats still making music, Young seems uniquely qualified to make an aged, moving record now that he is that old man he once sang about. Contrast The Monsanto Years with 2006’s Living With War, which had better music and more to say about its target, and the faults are all the more glaring. If he only could’ve put as much passion into exploring the GMO concept as he did conceiving it.