The Monsanto Years
Reviewed by: Max Miller
Here’s a short list of things I care about enough to, say, lose sleep over: my mother’s health, securing a means of income, my significant other’s financial stability. The things I’m most worried about either directly affect me or affect people close to me. In a general sense, I’m concerned about issues like police violence against black Americans, the state of the global economy and genocide in Nigeria, but they rarely weigh on my conscience the way these more personal matters do. Depending on the type of person you are, you may call that kind of thinking “reasonable” or you may call it “privileged” or even “irresponsible.” Neil Young certainly might fall in the latter category.
The Monsanto Years, Young’s thirty-sixth studio album, is often about as subtle as an album called The Monsanto Years could possibly be. Young has an opinion about the use of GMOs, especially as it pertains to mega-agribusiness Monsanto, and he will not be satisfied until you have one, too — preferably one decrying big business for coming down on the humble farmer. Joining him on his crusade is backing group Promise of the Real, lead by, of all people, Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah.
As you might have suspected, I don’t have a very firm opinion on Monsanto that I like to deploy at the bar to get everyone into one of those trademark “big discussions” where no one listens to anyone else. I suppose I’m skeptical of Monsanto, especially given the stories of them suing farmers who accidentally grew crops from patented seeds that were blown onto their land, but I’m far from informed enough to outright villainize or defend them.
Unfortunately for Young and Promise of the Real, rock ‘n’ roll is not the most helpful medium for informing people like me. On “People Want to Hear About Love,” Young scoffs at how people would rather hear love songs than be forced to think about serious issues. But when he lists an endless string of more pressing matters, each is given about three seconds of attention. If you really wanted to become more informed about these issues, you’d have to do some serious Googling to learn more about all their intricacies. All Young is doing is laying out a bunch of ideological shibboleths so he and his ilk can feel self-righteous.
Please note that I’m not suggesting you remain ignorant of these issues. There are certainly legitimate concerns present here. They just make piss-poor subject matter for what is otherwise just another workmanlike Neil Young album. Even when Young settles down for a de rigueur harmonica-and-acoustic-guitar ballads like “Wolf Moon,” he pauses at the end to address the seeds of America (as in literal barley seeds) and asks, “Will you endure the thoughtless plundering?” While he surely intends for the moment to be meditative and deep, it comes off as comically portentous.
Similar flops play out with depressing regularity. Take the extended jam “Big Box,” which is like “Down By the River” if it were about Citizens United and Walmart, with its laughable refrain of “Too big to fail/ Too rich for jail.” Or listen to the whistle-laden “Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop,” where Young warbles, “I want a cup of coffee, but I don’t want a GMO/ I’d like to start my day off without helping Monsanto/ Monsanto/ Let our farmers grow/ What they want to grow.” Young used to be able to pen a protest song like “Ohio” that didn’t sound like it was written by a rebellious 16-year old, but apparently that bird has flown.
I understand that Young still loves to play music — and, musically, The Monsanto Years is still plenty sound, if not a little standard-issue. Promise of the Real make a fine stand-in Crazy Horse. But maybe if Young is this concerned about GMOs and other political issues, he should take a break from music and go on public speaking tours or find some other way to speak out on this issue where he isn’t forced to reduce his talking points to awkward rhyming couplets. If he puts as much into this as he put into the seemingly-already-forgotten Pono Player last year, he could do a lot more good than The Monsanto Years is ever going to do.