Neil Young has kept himself busy in this post-divorce era of his career. In 2014 he released two albums, A Letter Home, a lo-fi selection of covers, and Storytone, a solo album with an extra orchestral version attached.
For Young’s thirty-sixth (gasp) album, The Monsanto Years, he aims his guitar and pen at Monsanto, the company genetically engineering seeds (or GMOs) that are found in plenty of American products. But that’s not the only major company caught in his flame. He chips away at the facades of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Safeway and Chevron, a list that reads like most teenagers’ first places of employment.
Unlike Young’s more recent statement of protest albums–Greendale, Fork in the Road and Living With War–this one sounds more put together, less slapdash and hurried than the others. In Young’s last five-year or so late career dash, it’s his best album.
California band, Promise of the Real, were enlisted as Young’s backing band for the album after the two played at last year’s Farm Aid. The group features Willie Nelson’s boys, Lukas and Micah. They bring a wall of rumbling sound, not too dissimilar from Young’s main band of grizzled beasts in Crazy Horse.
The Monsanto Years opens on a hopeful note with the revitalizing “The New Day.” Young comes right out proclaiming, “It’s a bad day to do nothing,” setting the progressive tone of the album. A beer mug-swinging chorus follows with everybody’s arms around one another, swaying to and fro. Young closes with a stunted guitar solo that fades out with the song.
“Wolf Moon” is a sweet serenade pulled from Young’s classic Harvest–Harvest Moon era. He sings with a vulnerable quiver to our tortured atmosphere over an acoustic strum that moves along calmly like dripping rain.
“Big Box” rolls in like a hurricane with mists of Crazy Horse feedback. In the fog are Young’s red eyes as he spews down on corporate America and its unjust strangulation of the American worker. “From the capital to the boarded-up main streets / Big Business is there at every turn,” he sings, painting a gloomy vision of impossible odds. The rhythm feels like being chased through streets that never cease.
Young doesn’t mince his words. The lyrics could be the frustrated screed of a part-time worker written on a napkin during a fifteen-minute break. “People working part-time at Walmart / Never get the benefits for sure / Why not make it to full-time at Walmart? / Still standing by for the call to work,” sung as matter-of-factly as can be.
On “Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” Young pierces Monsanto all the way through and pokes into Starbucks with the spearhead on the other side. He uses straight-speak lyrics to discuss the intertangling of the two companies sounding as though he’s singing words from a pamphlet handed out at a rally.
Surely, the jumble of “preachy” words will turn off a lot of casual fans, but the song still has a pulse. It’s a whistle-while-you-work jingle that rails against the mislabeling practices of Monsanto. The chorus is a heartbreaking helpless plea to the GMO giant. Young ends the song with two simple lines that cut out all political pretense. “Mothers want to know what they feed their children,” he implores. “Let our farmers grow what they want to grow.”
Neil Young continues to be the amplified bullhorn for the people, using his artistic merit to sing songs about the many discouragements of modern life. Long may he run.