While the message often appears to overpower the music, the album is nowhere near the unlistenable mess some critics have claimed.
Both an unapologetic rabble-rouser and an unrepentant rocker, Neil Young has never been one to deny his muse. From his earliest output under the auspices of the Buffalo Springfield through a fifty year career marked by continuous starts and shifts, he’s proven himself a chameleon of multiple hues, continually shifting his stance with each new turn in the road. Few artists could absorb such inconsistency, one that ranges from the rage and resolve of his work with Crazy Horse to the sensitive singer/songwriter fare constructed around a single guitar and a howl of despair. And when Young’s on a tear, be it through the confounding techno circuitry of Trans, the daunting experimentation of Arc, the haphazard happenstance of Psychedelic Pill or the unrepressed anger of Living with War, commercial considerations be damned, because Young’s continually determined to express his emphatic sentiments.
Like Living with War, The Monsanto Years is an unblemished social statement that aims both barrels at multiple targets of scorn. In this case it happens to be a company that Young has accused of fouling the environment and contributing to the greed and overreach of corporate America. Yet while the message often appears to overpower the music, the album is nowhere near the unlistenable mess some critics have claimed. In fact, many of the songs are extremely accessible, even when compared to much of the earlier music that can be gleaned from Young’s catalog. Few will be destined to become classics, but many may reach a second tier. Granted, there’s no “Harvest Moon", or “Cinnamon Girl", or “A Child’s Came to Fame", or in fact, anything of that ilk whatsoever. But given the low-cast hue of “Wolf Moon” -- a song that might actually have found a good fit on Harvest Moon -- the terse anthemic stance of “A New Day for Love” or the whistling refrain that embellishes “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop", the worries that this is an overbearing, inconsistent and excruciating encounter prove mainly to be for naught.
Granted, the lyrics are somewhat cumbersome and heavy-handed, further detracting from the possibility of ensuring these songs will ever be considered of the hummable variety. “It’s a bad day to do nuthin’ / While so many people need our help / To keep their lands from the greedy / Who only plunder for themselves", Young wails on “A New Day for Love". Be forewarned: any suggestion that this will encourage the masses to sing along in combined protest is merely wishful thinking.
Nevertheless, Young has an able crew in tow in the form of Promise of the Real, which, under the direction of Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Michah, comes like a sufficiently untamed Crazy Horse. Their rampaging audio assault on “Working Man” and “Big Box” not only adds to the album veracity, but ensures its overall impact as well.
There will be those who will be understandably disappointed that Young has opted to voice his frustrations in such an overt and aggressive way. Nevertheless, it’s hard to fault the man for being true to his passion and purpose. The Monsanto Years may not be an album for the ages, but there’s never a moment of doubt that the conviction is clear.