You’d think at age 69, Neil Young might resign himself to a twilight-career sampling of revisiting past glories, cashing in on strumming a string and blowing a harp to the umpteenth strain of “Heart of Gold,” or greying along gracefully to a perhaps now tempered fist in the air to “Rockin’ in the Free World.”
You can think of such scenarios, but you’d be flat wrong.
For his 36th studio album (yes, he’s released 36 of ‘em during a 47-year solo career), Young rages agelessly against the agri-business machine and biotech giant known as Monsanto, a Missouri-based company that actually once manufactured such horror-inducing concoctions as DDT and Agent Orange. He spits venom in his defense of the organic – the working farmer’s fight against the soulless corporate America that’s hell bent on all-out control.
Joined by backing band, Promise of the Real, which notably includes within its ranks Lucas Nelson (son of Willie Nelson) on guitar/vocals, Young successfully channels anthemic middle fingers as he did on CSN&Y’s “Ohio,” his own 1970 anti-racism expose of “Southern Man,” and the plasticity of mainstream 1980’s American society on his 1988 ‘This Note’s For You’ album.
With a hearty Midwestern, overdriven kick in the garage, the album smacks from the start with “A New Day for Love,” a track that sees Young cautioning “It’s a bad day to do nothing, when so many people need our help.” A rallying cry against greed and unashamed land-grab, the song cuts a similar sonic cloth to such past gems like “Cowgirl In The Sand;” punchy, twangified Americana that threatens to lose the listener in its melodic cloud, yet throws an uneasy wrench in the works to make sure you’re really getting the message.
Similar in giving the listener a second-thought qualm or two about their retail practices is “Big Box,” a flowing mid-tempo rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on ‘Live Rust.’ Not only is the battle-cry/refrain of “someway, somehow” eerily reverbed out to create a ghostly, impending doom vibe, but the lyrical lashing through lines like “can’t ever make it full-time at Walmart; still standing by for the call to work” is sobering.
The track is more a spoken-word protest than infectiously melodic number, but it is as driving a cut as anything Young’s done in the past – another prime example of why he’s been referred to as the “godfather of grunge.” The guy’s guitar can still produce a dizzying disaster with just a few well-bent notes.
One of the more interesting cuts here is “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop.” The song begins with a three-chord, tongue-firmly-in-cheek ditty that is more akin to some lost 1962 Beach Boys B-side than anything in Young’s catalog. With an often whistled pre-verse accompaniment, it’s a cool song to hear from Young, actually fitting well alongside lyrics like “I want a cup of coffee but I don’t want a GMO” (Genetically Modified Organism, as Starbucks has been accused of supporting and using in its products).
Young does not let up as the album progresses; he turns up the heat being held to the feet of corporate America on tracks like “Monsanto.” Practically begging for a slander lawsuit, he fearlessly chastises the company through sneering off-puts like “you never know what the future holds in the shallow soil of Monsanto,” and “when the seeds rise, they’re ready for the pesticides.” He also manages to verbally throw the Safeway supermarket chain under the bus for stocking Monsanto products by using ironic images of farmers and their children growing ill from the chemicals – a contrast to the apparently family-friendly packaging of such products.
Aside from the scathing imagery, the song features some of Young’s most familiar guitar work – the laid-back, overdriven cool featured on Crazy Horse-accompanied classics like “Cortez the Killer;” Young’s falsetto has not lost anything to time, either. He still manages to convey a hapless urgency with that voice that, even if you don’t agree with his politics or understand his views; you know this is still something close to his heart.
As with causes Young’s been affiliated with in the past, such as Farm Aid, listening to ‘The Monsanto Years’ tells us he’s a good guy to have on your side. Tireless in his support of the everyman, and methodically smart in his piece-by-piece takedown of an opposing counsel, he plays like some rock ‘n roll evangelist sent to reveal the truth, and failure to see the light is not an option. Young sounds absolutely refreshed here in his cause, and both his music and lyrics pack stinging venom that say he’s not nearly ready to abandon his long-held practice of sticking it to the man.