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