Album Review

Neil Young + Promise of the Real - The Monsanto Years

Neil Young and Promise Of The Real - The Monsanto Years

To say that Neil Young has always been difficult to pin down is to overstate the obvious.  He has experimented with so many different types and approaches to music in the last half century that his fans often have no idea which Neil Young they’re going to encounter when they listen to his new music.  Despite all the negative hype and vitriol in the press, I have come to think that ‘The Monsanto Years’ is one of his better releases of the new century, not simply because he’s singing his heart out about issues that are obviously very dear to him, but also because the songs reflect on and solidify many of the different musical avenues and interests that he’s pursued over his long career.

Reviewing a new recording from Neil Young is a different proposition than assessing the work of just about any other artist I can think of.  Part of what’s at issue is, as I suggested, that there are just so darned many Neil Youngs to choose from, and for many people, they’re not all equally appealing.  My parents never get tired of the old acoustic numbers like ‘Old Man’ and ‘Heart of Gold’ and I love those songs, too.  But, if you restricted your listening to what you could hear on ‘Harvest’ or ‘Comes A Time’, you’d really only have a slender grasp of the whole Neil Young story.  The same could be said of my wife’s uncle who only likes the feedback, electric warrior shade of Neil Young that you hear on ‘Zuma’, ‘Ragged Glory’ and ‘Psychedelic Pill.’  A shorthand description of Neil Young's music could narrow down to finger picking or shredding distortion. Those are the polarities – in between there have been lots of weird side trips through the shaky shaky twang of the ‘Shocking Pinks’ or the early digital weird of ‘Trans’ or the misunderstood Reagan-ite family man of ‘Old Ways.’  Somehow along the road, I’ve learned to love all the Neil Youngs, although, depending on my mood, not always equally.  In the same way that I don’t want to eat the same food for lunch every day, I don’t necessarily want to exclusively hang out with any one of the Neil Youngs on offer.  There’s room for all of them, but like the phases of the moon that have figured in his music for so long, depending on the day, I might like one more than the other.  But, of course, the music he releases has more to do with me than whatever’s cooking in old Mr. Young’s brain at the time, and I’m sure he really doesn’t spend a lot of time considering what any of us think when he’s choosing what to write and perform. Thank goodness.  There’s enough music out there that sounds as if it was made by a committee after the shareholders had been consulted.

One of the only things I’ve been able to figure out from listening through my stack of old Neil Young records as I tried to place ‘The Monsanto Years’ in his overall canon is that he obviously doesn’t want to limit himself or look backwards without a purpose. It's a conundrum for many recording artists. It’s almost certainly easier for most of us to get away with not being the person we were twenty, thirty, forty years ago than it is for him.  No one expects us to feel as we did when we were in our teens or twenties, but it is weird how we want our favourite artists to reside in the comfortable sentimental, nostalgic box where they’ve hovered since we first connected with their music.  For someone like Young – or Bob Dylan – there’s always the past, the legend, the bestselling records of yesteryear; their new work is inevitably considered in the light of everything they’ve done before.  It must be a hell of an albatross, a lodestone, that makes it difficult of move ahead without obstructions.  It's not like Young has ever denied his past work.  On the contrary, he’s done more than most artists this side of the Grateful Dead to offer archival material and old concert recordings from all phases of his career to people who want to go there.

By the calendar, Neil Young’s a pretty old guy now and I heard him say in a recent interview that he wants to spend the time he has left doing things that have meaning for him. And, while any of us who haven’t had successful careers as artists would probably be delighted to savour a fraction of Young’s critical and musical success, it must feel old for him at this and probably doesn’t have the meaning, in itself, that it once did. I would bet he’s measuring success in a different way now, and he’s far more interested in being the topical shit disturber he has been of late than in creating more pretty songs for fans who want him to keep performing in his little acoustic box.  All of his old records are available on Pono and most of them are great.  I love listening to his old records, too,  but I am usually most interested in hearing what's coming next from Neil young, rather than re-playing old songs that I've heard hundreds of times.  And, usually, I'm not disappointed.  Over the years the only albums I've never really gelled with are 'Landing On Water' and 'Fork In The Road', which is not a bad track record for somebody who's been putting out an average of an album a year for nearly half a century.

Political music has always featured in Young’s work.  ‘Ohio’, ‘Southern Man,’’ Goodbye Dick’ (a spontaneous ditty from CSNY 1974) and ‘Revolution Blues’ are some of my favourite topical songs from the first phase of his career. Along with ‘Crime in the City’ and ‘Rocking in the Free World’ from the late eighties, Young has proved his can write material that touches on real life concerns.The major shift in Young’s approach to political material is that for most of his career political songs were embedded in albums that featured songs on a variety of topics.  They were rarely the central focus of the record.  This changed with the release of ‘Greendale’ and ‘Living With War,’ which deconstructed and commented on very specific focused topics.  Of these, ‘Greendale’ is a much more enjoyable listen for its subtle, offhand explorations of cultural shift exemplified by the characters in a fictional small American town.  The power of ‘Living With War’ rests in the ferocious music and the amazing intuitive chemistry between Young and Crazy Horse.  It tops the list of Neil Young records that people own but never listen to.  As dated as it has become, that’s a shame.  It’s a good album and is worth pulling out and considering carefully.

Since 'Living With War', Neil Young has written an autobiography and a wonderful book that is ostensibly about cars, but is really about a heckuva lot more than that.  I consider a song like 'Who's Gonna Stand Up?' from Storytone in the light of those books and have come to enjoy its energy and vibe, but don't consider it the equal of songs like 'Mother Earth' or 'Crime In The City' that make many of the same points within more compelling narratives. But, you can't bat 1000 every time, and when I think about it, Woody Guthrie wrote dozens of awkward really 'on the nose' songs for every enduring classic like 'Tom Joad' or 'Pastures of Plenty.' The message was the important thing, so Guthrie responded to the world around him in a way that was blunt and direct, but always sincere. It's hard work to write a song that is both topical and aesthetically satisfying.  Not many people can do it and there have been a lot of complaints about the musicality of ‘The Monsanto years,’ with the most common jibe aimed at the sometimes artless words that Young uses to deliver his messages.  To be fair, lyrically speaking, these new songs don't represent not Neil Young’s finest hour. Many of his best songs like 'Powderfinger' or 'Carmichael' have always focused on the situation of a single character and even though Young has never had the verbal finesse of Bob Dylan, he's always been capable of rendering subtle messages about human relationships through the description of a movement, a look or a sigh as he did on the recent 'Ramada Inn' from 'Psychedelic Pill.'  With most of the songs on 'The Monsanto Years', there's a sense that the immensity of the issues have overcrowded artistic concerns and a sense of urgency that more than compensates for the lack of obvious insight and description in the narratives. One could argue that the songs are so topical that they give an impression of being tossed off without a huge amount of editing or retakes and that there are forced rhymes ( how many words do you know that rhyme with Monsanto?) that get in the way of a smooth listening experience.  But, these quibbles miss the point.  As songs, 'Working Man' or 'Big Box' may not endure in the same way that 'Old Man' or 'Cortez the Killer' do, but they're good off the cuff, sincere reflections from a man more than half way through his life, and it's understandable that a certain creeping impatience can be heard in his delivery.  That impatience makes the music real. 

As 'protest' numbers go, 'Monsanto Years' and 'I Don't Know' are good songs that get their messages across directly and without apology. The same can be said for 'Rules Of Change' and 'If I Don't Know' that make powerful points over the propulsive music and feedback. 'Wolf Moon' is beautiful, tender and sincere, with the ironic 'People Want To Hear' addressing the difficulty recording artists have in getting people to listen to music like this.

A lot has been written about how Neil Young tapped Lukas Nelson and his band Promise Of The Real to back him up on 'The Monsanto Years.'  With Willie Nelson's other son, Micah of 'Insects and Robots' joining up for the record and tour, it's been easy shorthand for journalists to dub Promise Of The Real as a second generation Crazy Horse replacement, but that wouldn't be very accurate.  There are certain similarities - both groups create a big, brash, rugged sound and can fearlessly jump deep into churning, soupy jams, but Promise Of The Real are more understated and egoless for such a young band.  The sound they create is swampy and multi-layered rather than metallically psychedelic.  They create a vibe and depth that is similar to the sound of Young's 'Sleeps With Angels' from 1994, but their is a warmth and wash to their music that is more alluring and approachable than the electric ugliness that made 'Living With War' such a powerful and unsettling listen.  Both Nelsons are great guitarists who play in different styles.  Lukas' tone is more clean and precise, while Micah creates textures of sound that perfectly complement Young's ferocious leads. With Corey McCormick on bass and Anthony LoGerfo on drums, Promise Of The Real boast one of the finest rhythm sections in rock music with Tato Melgar's percussion subtly weaving the whole thing together. From one listen, it's obvious that POTR get it and know how to play with Neil Young.  Many other far more experienced bands have floundered trying to find Young's groove while these boys effortlessly dive in and thrive.  The real story of their collaboration can be experienced on Youtube, where videos from their tour show their obvious chemistry.  I hope they continue to work together.

Finally, 'The Monsanto Years' is worth supporting for many reasons.  Of course, Young could have chosen to give his fans ‘Harvest Half Moon’ over and over again, but he's never done that. Many of the songs like ‘Rock Starbucks’ are saved by Young’s awareness that as a wealthy aging rock star, he has levels of protection and isolation from everyday life that his detractors have used as a way of diminishing the value of his opinions. But, being rich doesn't make the problems he outlines any less real, and the lack of beautiful lyrics or enduring melodies doesn't make the songs any less vital.  'The Monsanto Years' isn't about career, but it is about legacy.  When the totals are tallied, 'The Monsanto Years' may not earn as much as 'Harvest Moon' or 'Rust Never Sleeps', but it will demonstrate just how far out on a limb Young was willing to go when he put his heart and soul into a project.

But, is 'The Monsanto Years' any good?  As music? Yes, it’s really quite good as music and it feels very good to have Neil Young in my corner, publicly voicing his opinion on these issues.  Is it as good as ‘Zuma’ or ‘Greendale’?  It may not be in one sense, if we’re limiting ourselves to talking about sheer musicality and innovation, but then again, if I can go back to the Guthrie comparison I made earlier, ‘Whoopy Ti-Yi, Get Along Mr. Hitler' isn’t as deathless a tune as ‘This Land is Your Land’ but we’re still the richer for Woody's recording it.  As the years pass, I wouldn't be surprised if we feel the same way about ‘The Monsanto Years’

This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.ca

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I love Neil's music and have owned most of it over the years. My complaint about 'recent' Neil is a lack of attention to the lyrics.  It often seems like he just bashes them out and moves on.  I can't help but feel that if he would slow down a little and spend more time on his lyrics he could elevate some of these songs to real classics. 

Maybe he feels like he doesn't have the time to spend, that his viability is limited to a few more years...it is a fair criticism, but he's mid 60's now, lost many a friend and player recently, hasn't been the most healthy guy himself, and sees his own mortality in ther rearview...I think the comparison in the article to Guthrie is a good one...as you know, in addition to the 100's of songs Woody wrote, there are tons of lyrics he never set to music...over the years the family (daughter Nora) has recruited people like Jackson Browne, Ellis Paul, Jimmy LaFave, etc. to set those lyrics to music...quite frankly, most of those songs are just average or below compared to the best songs Woody wrote...the one Jackson Browne did had, according to him, "about 50 verses"...so he had to pare it down some, but felt very guilty about it because it was "Woody f$%#*&g^ Guthrie".  Woody was wtill writing lyrics when his genetic illness had incapacitated him...that they weren't as focused as "Oklahoma Hills" is understandable...

I don't necessarily disagree with you Sheldon...but it is better to have "recent" Neil than no Neil...we've always had to abide his confounding stylistic changes over the years...it is just more of Neil being Neil...

Actually, late 60s. 

I'm 60 myself, so I am trying to shave a year or two for him...nuts to that "hope I die before I get old" stuff...just a number...

For much of the last 15 years Neil's work has veered between activism and nostlaigia with Greendale doing both.   After his aneurism a few years back there was more than a hint of mortality in his music.  More recently he's had to deal with the deaths of LA Johnson, Ben Keith, Rick Rosas and Billy Talbot's stroke whic caused him to miss last year's Crazy Horse tours.

Hooking up with the Promise Of The Real has revitalised Neil's music and taken him out of the rather maudlin mood of the recent past.  At a time when the world is sleepwalking into an era of increasingly unregulated capitalism, Neil Young has highlighted a major environmental and developing world issue on which governments are not keen to debate and in respect of which the neo liberal faction is working hard to push through international trade treaties which effectively preclude anti-GM legislation enacted by the government of a country.  Citizen action in Europe has been one of the major blocks to the Monsanto agenda to the point where in the UK the prosecuting authorities will no longer take those who destroy GM crops to court because juries have refused to convict them. 

My reaction to the Monsanto Years is here is some of the lost vital music Neil has produced in a long time.  Long may he run.

I took my 17 year old daughter to the Neil Young concert in Lincoln, NE last Saturday and she left a real fan.  He played nonstop for 3 hours starting with accoustic, moving to mid-tempo stuff, and ending with the smoking rockers.  Down by the River was incredible.  And, of course, he ended with Cinnamon Girl.  On the way out we heard an older woman say, "That was great, except for the Monsanto stuff."  LOL.

that is funny...let's dedicate a GMO or two to the "ole gal".  

Some people just want to hear "Heart of Gold"...


 

Excellent piece - understanding, thoughtful, and in my opinion, largely correct. The only bone I would pick - and this isn't so much with the author as with some fans he refers to - is that there aren't different Neil Youngs. Neil Young is always Neil Young, and if anyone loves anything he does, which implies some recognition of his extraordinary talent, they owe it to him and themselves to try to understand whatever he does, if not love it, rather than so easily dismissing a significant part of his repertoir.

Along with this observation is a corresponding one - that Young knows full well the musical shortcomings of some of his output, "The Monsanto Years" included, but also knows that unless we address and solve the problems he's singing about, there will nothing nice and pleasant left to consider in the quickly disappearing lazy comfort that trickle down capitalism affords some of us, fewer and fewer every day. Our society, culture and country are at the breaking point, time is of the essence, Neil, like some but not enough of us yet, knows how critical things are and keeps trying to sound the alarm and rally the troops. Ignore it at your own peril. 

I'm one of those Neil Young fans who loves both his acoustic and electric incarnations but his two previus releases before "The Monsanto Years" taxed the patience of even a fan like myself. "A Letter Home" I thought was an unlistenable self-indulgence because of its sound and "Storytone" with ists mellifluous orchestra an unlistenable pretention. So I had great hopes for this album and his collaboratin with Lukas Nelson's band being a return to the ragged glory of his work with Crazy Horse and to a large degree it is. But I must agree with others who are disappointed in his lyrics. I've read that blues artists like Lightnin' Hopkins would go into a studio and improvise lyrics on the spot while recording and that's almost what the lyrics on this album sound like. But it has to be easier to adequately improvise a blues song than to convey the complex criticisms Neil is making on this album. I believe it was Easy Ed on this site that pointed out that some of his diatribes aren't even accurate. But still, compared to those last two albums this is great music.

I suppose there is some validity in the speculation that he was more interested in having his say than saying it in the most poetic and artistic way. But in the past he has created topical work in a hurry and still wrote great lyrics such as on "Ohio". Perhaps ole Neil needs to get back to smoking pot.

At one point in the concert he said (of himself), "I guess some people just aren't happy until they're not happy. "

Nice review. Well said. On your point about having a couple of albums that don't work for you, I think for a lot of people it's even more. When I've seen Neil there's always someone disappointed that he's not playing their favorites. Even on those records I don't like as much I usually still find some merit. I try to think of the song itself and not necessarily the way it's presented. Like "Wondering" on the Shocking Pinks album. I liked the Shocking Pinks version, but it was a revelation to hear the way he did it with the Danny Whitten version of Crazy Horse. As a musician I try to keep my ears and mind open to the possibilities of a song. I was lucky enough to see Neil & Crazy horse for a surprise show at a small venue in San Francisco. It was like being at a rehearsal. He was working on "Razor Love". There were several false starts and they ended up playing it twice. When the song finally made it to an album some years later it was an acoustic version on the Silver and Gold album. I think of J.J. Cale or Dylan, there might be some hidden gems if you look close enough. 

Saw Neil and this band Sunday night in Vermont.  Neil was overly grateful for Vermont's contribution to food labeling, in fact he donated $100,000 to this fight.  Walk about putting your money where your mouth is.  

First 5 songs were classic acoustic songs and then the band let loose.  Great Night!

I listened to this ablbum again and as much as I wanted to like it, I just can't. This is the 3rd Neil Young album in a row that I really dislike which is very frustrating for I've long considered him one of the greatest musical artists to emerge form the 60s and although he's had some low points, for me, 3 duds in a row is a new low. I even like albums of his that are dismissed by many such as "Broken Arrow" but not these last 3. Oh well, there is plenty of great music from his past I can always revisit.

You describe the plight of a lot of Neil Young fans.  I felt the same about Storytone.  I gave it a break for a few months and now I like it quite a lot more.  I'm with you about 'Broken Arrow' - a few really great songs on it.  I think NY has become a lot more like The Rolling Stones or Stevie Wonder - a few good songs on each album, but when looked at over a career or heard in concert - it adds up to a hell of a lot of great songs.

Good job Doug, but I think you bit off too much in this review. We know Neil is, well, Neil. Love this new album. Have you seen it played live. Check out my vids and pics here.

I'll have a look.  Yeah, I have a habit of biting off a lot...... but writing about this CD really gave me a chance to think about how it fits into his whole career - and all of the sudden I was writing a retrospective and not just a review of 'the monsanto years.'

 

Doug,

Nice try on this. Here's some constructive criticism.

Personally, don't think there's a real need 1,000 word background and history of Neil Young. The end of this review is the review, the rest is simply boilerplate. Did you see any of these shows? 

Also an old crusty copy editor once said, "try taking 'I' and 'you' out of your writing. It will read better." Try it, Doug.