If for some reason hearing the word ‘corporation’ or the acronym ‘GMO’ causes you any kind of distress, you’re going to have a bad time listening to this new release by Neil Young + Promise Of The Real. From his earliest releases, Neil Young has long music as an outlet to make some kind of statement about his qualms with society, and The Monsanto Years is no different. From Supreme Court decisions, to Starbucks’ partnership with the Monsanto corporation to sue the state of Vermont, the inspiration and subject matter here is topical, tangible and totally transparent.
Roping in the support of Californian band Promise Of The Real (which, incidentally features the sons of Willie Nelson, Lukas and Micah) the Canadian singer-songwriter delivers loose and spontaneous rock sounds which at times sounds reminiscent of his partnership with Crazy Horse. Comprising nine tracks that lean on the more lengthy side, the album has the feel of a jam session, although there are more tender moments like the stripped back Wolf Moon which pushes Young’s slightly fragile voice to the forefront.
The feel of the album is somewhat summed up in the eight minute Big Box, which first gives us an outtake of laughter, giving the feel of a live session, and then drops into grungy opening guitar chords. Through the repeated lyrical refrain “Too big to fail/Too rich for jail”, the song is a critique of corporations being recognised as legal persons and the negative impacts this status is likely to have. Although Young’s message is easily received after just one verse, the whole duration of the song is used to hammer the point home. In particular, the theme of power imbalance between the little guy, particularly farmers, and the corporation is addressed across many of the tracks. After Black Box, the songs that reflect this theme most explicitly are A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop (which alludes to Young’s boycott of the coffee chain and talks of “corporate control”, “fascist politicians” and “chemical giants”), Rules Of Change, and the album’s title track which is a reference to the American multinational agricultural biochemical corporation.
Lyrics and political messages aside, I feel like Neil Young is revisiting some of his classic and simple folk rock chops to pull of this new release. With distorted chords that often feature multiple lead guitar lines rambling overhead, Monsanto Years delivers some of his text book jamming flavours, while letting in more folky elements to provide some variation, like a harmonica solo opening in Workin’ Man. The prolific songwriter sounds a little strained in his vocals when he reaches for those high notes, but his passion for his message overcomes any frailty that this might suggest.
The Monsanto Years is Neil Young’s third album released since April last year. He’s got a reputation of being an ambitious workhorse of a musician for the consistency of his writing and recording, and at 69 years old he shows no signs of slowing down! This is an album that speaks of global issues and calls for change. I wouldn’t pick this release to spin on repeat for sheer enjoyment of the music, but it’s definitely worth a listen because Mr. Young puts forward some poignant points, and he isn’t going make you read between the lines.