Album Review: Neil Young & Promise Of The Real - The Monsanto Years

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Neil Young has been confounding and testing his audience for nearly a half century now, so when he dropped the hint that his new project would be a concept album about agrochemical titan Monsanto nobody was necessarily shocked.

The man has always gone against the corporate goliath whether it is "audio" related (Apple and the mp3) or "auto" related (gas companies).

His fight for the independent farmer has been going on for years, since 1985 when he organized the first Farm Aid benefit.

So Monsanto, the leading producer of genetically-engineered seed and herbicide, seems like a natural (or un-natural, if you will) target for the songwriter.

The shocking thing about The Monsanto Years, his new album released in conjunction with the band Promise Of The Real, is just how much fun he is having sticking it to the "man." Last year found him releasing an album recorded in a 1947 Voice-O-Graph vinyl recording booth (A Letter Home) and a bloated, over-arranged collection about his obsession with cars (Storytone).

Both albums found him in a sobering, serious mood, and the material suffered because of it. This album finds Neil having fun jamming with his friends again, something that could arguably be Neil Young's strong suit.

The recordings sound natural, unhurried and loose, while the lyrics are Neil's usual ham-fisted and simple critiques on the agricultural industry.

Neil is the crazy uncle that you can't wait to hear rant at the Thanksgiving table. Luckily, on The Monsanto Years he peppers his diatribes with a healthy helping of humor making the whole package go down smooth.

Promise Of The Real, featuring two of Willie Nelson's sons Lukas and Micah, don't try to replicate Crazy Horse's simplistic psych-grunge, instead they bring jam-band chops while also getting out of Neil's way. On the title track Neil lays down a classic lead guitar riff that sounds like it could have been an outtake from classic Neil albums like Zuma or Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere.

The band provides the perfect amount of muscle for him to pile his riffs on top of.

On "A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop" (get the joke?) the whole band whistles in harmony during the chorus while the verses find plenty of Neil one-liners like "Yeah I want a cup of coffee but I don't want a GMO, I'd like to start off my day without helping Monsanto."

The bonus DVD video content shows Neil and company laughing, goofing around in the studio and generally having a blast. The introduction to the hour-long video reads "No auto tune or vocal booths were used in this recording" and much of the content is Neil and the band recording gang-style vocals while drinking coffee (not Starbucks of course) and mimicking the lyrics.

The bond between Neil and this new band is something not seen from him since 1995 where he borrowed the guys from Pearl Jam to back him up on the album Mirror Ball.

The same loose and fun feeling pervades this album as well.

Do the politics get in the way of the fun? Any other political singer to try and tackle the agrochemical issues of Monsanto would have come off as a real bummer (think John Mellencamp), but Neil knows that to shine a light on an issue he needs to also provide a quality piece of music underneath his musings. "People Want To Hear About Love" may be about that struggle to simultaneously entertain and educate.

Most people just want to hear a simple love song, not a political diatribe. So Neil also gives us a handful of catchy barn burners that have been his bread and butter for decades.

So while The Monsanto Years doesn't match the dizzying heights of his 2012 mega-opus Psychedelic Pill (with Crazy Horse) or his ten or so five-star albums, it finds him stronger and happier than he has in years. The heavy-handed lyrical onslaught could have been disastrous, instead it's just another one of Neil's interesting left-turns.

The Monsanto Years by Neil Young and Promise Of The Real gets 4 Empty Lighthouses out of 5.

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