Neil Young will never cease to concern himself with the future of our planet. On The Monsanto Years, his ecologically focused 36th studio album, he sings with the emotion of an aging father who throws his fist in the air at Fox News. Joined by Promise of the Real, a band featuring Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah, Young confronts the ways Monsanto threatens biodiversity. What better way to counteract that than show the importance of, place for, and results of diversity within music? Young has done roots rock as well as anyone, so keeping the music sounding familiar is a smart call. Lyrically, he could rope in more bite and less corn, but The Monsanto Years backs out of that opportunity, playing it safe instead.
Standing tall throughout all nine songs is, of course, Monsanto, the American agricultural biotech corporation producing genetically engineered seed and systemic herbicide. Some farmers use GMOs (genetically modified organisms) no matter the potential negative effect they may have on farming. While they’re busy germinating, growing, and producing the foods you want, some argue, GMOs and their leftover seeds are poisoning the physical and financial aspects of farming. Young, doing what he does best, is saddling up to take down the Frankenstein future of agriculture.
It begins with the gentle trickling of acoustic guitar on “It’s a New Day for Love”, where Young succinctly captures his veteran activism. “Nobody matters but you and me/ When it comes to protecting our precious gift,” he sings. “It’s a bad day to do nothing with so many people needing our help.” There’s a rallying behind community and a call for greed to subside. The Canadian singer-songwriter is an American activist whether he (or Donald Trump) likes it or not. This is politics getting re-fired up. Even in the jovial melody of the title track, Young cuts right to the heart of the matter. “Give us this day our daily bread, and let us not go/ With Monsanto,” he sings. “The seeds of life are not what they once were/ Mother Nature and God don’t own them anymore.” He’s a 69-year-old legend still heated by the world’s ability to churn out so much wrong, and he’s (somewhat) eager to fight back.
Musically, it’s the same Young who’s been here for decades. There’s the oddly comforting bustle of electric guitars, the rough edges of solos, and fluid drums that allow for improvisation. Young’s vocals were tagged with an old soul back when his body was young. It doesn’t matter how stiff the strums or words have become. In “People Want to Hear About Love”, upbeat rhythms show him fighting against age, recalling an urgency not unlike that of Living with War or the spontaneity of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. His message rides on the message alone, not the youthful energy that can only be captured at a certain time in someone’s life. In that, The Monsanto Years is comfortable, nostalgic, and welcome.
Few musical veterans can wheel forward with speed and continuity, but Young is one of them. His grace, on the other hand, dips in and out. Hokeyness shrouds “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” with its old-timey country bass line and cheap words so direct that they’re easy to chuckle at, however serious Young’s intent. “I want a cup of coffee/ But I don’t want a GMO/ I’d like to start my day off/ Without helpin’ Monsanto,” he sings. There’s no need to play cool. Political music has never placed tinted shades above direct communication. But when your message is so straightforward that it could be plastered on a picket sign (“Monsanto and Starbucks/ Mothers want to know/ What they feed their children”), it’s probably time to take out the red pen and make lyrics, well, lyrical.
It’s 2015, and it’s not uncommon to assume most seeds are genetically modified by now. Organic aisles in the grocery store glow with a heavenly hue, and Vermont farms glisten with the promise of American produce “how it used to be.” Nostalgia lays not just for the straightforward health days, but for farmers’ rights and control over their land. It’s there in the storytelling of “Workin’ Man” and present in the nature-loving “Wolf Moon”. Young is fighting for his neighbors to reclaim their own land, even if his voice is weaker than it was when he first crossed the border. As such, this is the political roots rock album that tackles the unjust labors of an agricultural biotechnology company, and he’s not looking to bust GMO myths for tidy government regulations in the process.
Young long ago figured out how to write rants that engage. The Monsanto Years, listenable but dusty, is no different; it’s music you’ve heard before with a new bad guy as its target. When it comes to an end, there’s less of a fire in your belly to stampede Monsanto’s walls with pitchforks than there is an urge to slip Young’s earlier work into the car stereo and cross the barren stretch of country that looks the same as it did in the ’60s.
Essential Tracks: “It’s a New Day for Love”, “Monsanto Years”