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Monday, June 29, 2015

"Curt of chord and filled with purpose": Neil Young's 'The Monsanto Years' Review

As the reviews of Neil Young's latest album 'The Monsanto Years' -- with Promise Of The Real -- start to roll in, we'll try and highlight a sampling.

From The Guardian | Neil Young: The Monsanto Years review – quasi-punk love songs for the planet by Kitty Empire:
This is Young in quasi-punk mode, curt of chord, brief of noodle, filled with purpose, marshalling tunes – and whistling, and harmonicas – in the service of the singer’s public service. Often, The Monsanto Years hits home squarely. If I Don’t Know, the album closer, is a moving meta-song, in which Young examines his efforts to get people to give a shit, while his guitar gently weeps. “If the melodies stay pretty/And the songs are not too long,” he reasons, he might restore some respect to the Earth.

Country and folk have long tackled injustice. Here, the rambling Workin’ Man tells of farmer Vernon Bowman, sued for taking seed from GMO soy without paying Monsanto a royalty. Young’s issue isn’t with intellectual property rights – musicians like royalties – but with how agriculture has been taken over by corporate McSeed, further impoverishing farmers (a Young concern since Farm Aid). By contrast, you question the lasting artistic merit of ditties such as A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop, which squares up to Monsanto (and Starbucks) with all the elegance of a combine harvester.
From RINF | "Neil Young is Starving the Poor! The Pro-GMO Lobby’s Latest Scapegoat" by Colin Todhunter:

Owen Patterson ludicrously talks about Greenpeace being put on trial for “crimes against humanity” and finishes by saying:

“Instead of bashing companies that are trying to save lives, Neil Young ought to use his star power to convince the NGO community to do the right thing and support giving the developing world the GMO tools it needs to feed its growing, and tragically malnourished, populations.

Owen Paterson is a staunch supporter of GM technology, so staunch in fact that fellow Conservative Party MP Zac Goldsmith stated Paterson was little more than an industry puppet.

It comes as no surprise that Paterson would state the things he does. As Environment Minister, his support for GMOs was being carried out in partnership with a number of pro-GMO institutions, including the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (ABC), which is backed by GM companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Bayer CropScience. Last year, despite government attempts to throw a veil of secrecy over meetings and conversations it had with the industry, GeneWatch UK uncovered evidence that GMO companies are driving UK government policy in this area (see this).

His claims about GMOs have already been demolished and are erroneous, misleading and little more than emotive biotech sector inspired PR (see the twisted world of Mr Paterson and this). And his claims about Golden Rice are not only false or misleading (also see this and this) but seem to be a key part of a PR strategy he thinks should be used to weaken opposition to GMOs.

After attempting to smear and denigrate opponents, let’s take a brief look at Paterson himself. Back in 2010, his wealth was estimated to be £1.5 million (approx. $2.35 million). He was a member of David Cameron’s cabinet of millionaires. Some 23 members of that cabinet were estimated to be worth in total at least £63 million. Just 9% of the population have over £1 million in wealth. In order words, Paterson is a rich man.

He is a rich man who belongs to the right-wing Conservative Party, which is waging an ideological war on working people in the UK in an attempt to justify even more ‘austerity’ measures. And the outcome has been predictable.

See this about rising food poverty and increasing reliance on food banks in the UK. See this about the five richest families in Britain being worth more than the poorest 20%. See this about one third of Britain’s population being in poverty.

According to this report, almost 18 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions; 12 million are too poor to engage in common social activities; one in three cannot afford to heat their homes adequately in winter; and four million children and adults are not properly fed (Britain’s population is estimated at 63 to 64 million).

Welfare cuts have pushed hundreds of thousands below the poverty line since 2012, including more than 300,000 children.

Paterson’s pro-privatisation, deregulation, welfare-cutting, pro-big business, anti-union Conservative Party’ policies are driving the statistics mentioned above, which are predicted to get much worse. And it will get much worse because the economic agenda that his party introduced three decades back has been to drive down wages, automate the labour process or offshore it to cheap labour economies and now to impose ‘austerity’ on the millions who have become surplus to requirements and considered a drain.

And so it goes with Neil Young's 'The Monsanto Years'.

Looks like a long, hot summer ahead. Keep cool and stay calm.

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At 6/29/2015 12:48:00 PM, Blogger The Zuma Band said...

Neil, if you're reading this on your phone while on vacation, consider making these changes for the upcoming live shows. Ditch many of the conjunctions, articles, and bunched up word/syllable clusters. Your content and rhythms will stay intact, while the lyrics can be sung as lyrics and not just as spoken, crowded word chunks. You know that you have to chomp through those big, clumsy phrases like"grocery manufacturer's alliance"- you sound like you're laughing because you know it sounds silly! You have to take big breaths to contain "..and chemical giants walkin' arm in arm"- it's just not musical, or comfortable to do, I'm sure. Perhaps the meanings will be just slightly less explicit, but assume some intelligence on the part of your audience.

Try these examples instead of the original version. You'll see that your meaning stays generally intact, if just slightly more cryptic, but it will feel better to sing and sound better to the ear .

" trouble
broke the law
balanced the fine
benefit to all
business decision
pay the fine
break the law....."

"streets of the capital
corporations control.."

"corporate control
takes over American farms
ChemCos and pols
walkin arm in arm"

"Monsanto and Starbucks
through the GMA
sued the people of Vermont
to overturn their will"

You're welcome! You can thank me on July 22 at the show!

At 6/29/2015 02:35:00 PM, Blogger Thrasher Wheat said...

The Zuma Band - well done, sir. We'll know soon enough about Neil checking his phone on vacation. ;)

At 6/29/2015 07:16:00 PM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...


Well said, and it's good solid advice. I know I'm wrong, but I really believe if we were able to be in the studio with him, we could very easily improve the lyrical melodic flow of these songs. Everything is so awkwardly and simplistically phrased, but the bare bones were there and could have quickly been edited and shaped into a mature accessible work.

That being said, we know that Neil doesn't take advice too well so I hope he doesn't see your post. My fear is that he may "double down" and give us a show focusing exclusively on the reading of the lyrics.

He does like to confound his audience....

At 6/29/2015 08:03:00 PM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

Looks like the reviewer from American Songwriter agrees:

"And with a little more molding, some editing (do we need the whistling or the clunky title of “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop”?) and an honest associate to suggest when Young should tweak some lyrics before committing to a final mix, this might have attracted the wider crossover attention it yearns for."

At 6/29/2015 08:07:00 PM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

Second impressions.

This is yet another album that would work far better if it were trimmed down a bit.

Just getting rid of People Want To Hear About Love, for instance (the dullest song NY has ever written, though there are other contenders on this record), improves the album by about 1000%. Some of the other lightweight songs can also be confidently removed without any negative effect. Kind of like surgically removing a swollen appendix from an otherwise healthy person. Despite the worthy message, and some strong musicianship, there's just not enough substance here to maintain over 50 minutes of music. 20 minutes is pushing it.

Make no mistake, contained within this album are the most lifeless, stale lyrics Neil has ever conjured up. Nothing else comes close. The problem is not a lack of subtlety. Neither is it anything to do with lack of rhymes or phrasing: instead, it's that all the beauty and emotion and energy and pacing and drama and artistry of Neil's writing has been mercilessly stripped away, leaving a completely barren corpse. It's quite shocking in that regard.

Which is a real shame. Because I stand by my assessment that sonically, this record really has a lot going for it. I particularly like parts of "A New Day", "Coffee Shop", "Big Box" and "If I Don't Know". There are some great sounds here, no question. If only there were some good songs!


At 6/29/2015 08:49:00 PM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

Third impressions.

People Want To Hear About Love is funny, sad, profound, obvious, complex, simple, meaningful and meaningless. A highlight of the album.

(Am I contradicting myself yet?).


At 6/29/2015 08:54:00 PM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

Fourth impressions.

Neil's most compelling full album since Greendale, both lyrically and musically.


At 6/29/2015 11:16:00 PM, Blogger Old Neg said...

Scotsman I was about to jump your shit about "people want to hear about love" until I kept reading! I love that song. This is Neil's best album since Greendale as far as I'm concerned and that's saying a lot. But again, who gives a shit what I or any of you think? Neil knows best. They're all of his songs after all. Lots of pissing in the wind around here. Fuck the doubters! We all seem to be full of shit on this board to a certain extent! Myself certainly included. Rock on you crazy old fuck! We just love ya.

At 6/29/2015 11:30:00 PM, Blogger Grey Rider said...

Old Neg,
Thanks for being so positive in your earthy plebian way. Neil does know best. I suppose some on this board think they could rewrite and improve Shakespeare too.
To them I offer not a harvest moon, flower moon, or wolf moon but rather just a cheeky one.

At 6/30/2015 08:33:00 AM, Blogger The Zuma Band said...

Ha, as if NY takes advice from anybody. After all, he had the perverse humor to write,

"She was bringin' down dinner for Grandpa
It was crawlin' with vitamins
And tender as a mother's love.."

Makes vitamins sound like bugs, or worms..from Ma no less. I wonder if he had just had some earnest hippie soy-n-kale stew and was bummed that it would be too far to drive to the nearest In-N-Out Burger in Redwood City.

At 6/30/2015 09:29:00 AM, Blogger Keith Burris said...

One man's first listen:

It's fun.

The melodies ARE pretty and stick with you.

In the mode of LWW and Greendale -- electric protest. But the band sounds like what it is: new and young and vital.

Really love "If I don't know" and "Wolf Moon."

It is too late in the game -- re this subject matter -- for subtle lyrics.

To me everything about this record seems honest

God bless Neil Young for being himself and having the guts to make it. The critics have been wrong about his records, almost without exception, since the beginning.

I am grateful for this record and its author and collaborators

At 6/30/2015 05:13:00 PM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

To be honest I don't know what to make of the album (hence my meandering comments above). I've erred between loving it and hating it in the last 24 hours, something I can't say has ever happened with any of Neil's other albums. That old quote about there being a fine line between genius and madness is probably the best description I can give. The shrewd, mysterious songwriter has been replaced with a mad scientist. Something is lost, something is gained.

Earlier today I listened to the album Tonight's The Night, and also the superb bootleg "Neil Young Plays Acoustic In Paris". Both show off Neil at his absolute best. In comparison, Monsanto almost sounds like it was recorded by another artist (at times it sounds like a parody, as several reviews have noted), and largely suffers in comparison. And yet: there's something this new album has that those earlier records don't. It's hard to put a finger on. Is this work inferior, or is it just very different? Tricky question.

I don't think The Monsanto Years will have the staying power of Neil's best work. In a few months, my guess is everyone will have largely forgotten about it, as happened with A Letter Home. But if you are one of those fans who has listened to it once or twice and given up, my suggestion is to give it another few listens. In fact, take time to read the lyrics in the booklet, rather than just listening to them. Get into the perspective of the singer, and it begins to make sense.


At 6/30/2015 05:38:00 PM, Blogger anon said...

You heard it here first:
These will be some of his best live shows EVER!
Grab a ticket...

At 7/01/2015 10:04:00 AM, Blogger Thrasher Wheat said...

@ TopangaDaze - "He does like to confound his audience...." Indeed. It seems to be his artistic mission in life. To confound or not to confound... that is the question.

@ O- saying this is Neil's best album since Greendale is saying a lot.

We don't hear Monsanto Years reaching that pinnacle. Greendale is definitely one of Neil's most most cohesive, coherent and crafted albums ever.

@ Grey Rider - it's all one moon...

@ The Zuma Band - got a potbelly. :)

@ Keith - Right: "God bless Neil Young for being himself and having the guts to make it. The critics have been wrong about his records, almost without exception, since the beginning."

@ Scotsman - Interesting observations. Certainly the ambivalent reaction is insightful especially in comparing an experience such as Tonight's The Night.

You can't listen to Tonight's The Night on a bright sunny morning. It just doesn't work. Likewise, maybe you can't listen to 'The Monsanto Years' unless you're interested in hearing from those who speak truth to power.

At 7/02/2015 12:41:00 AM, Blogger Raincheck said...

Most issues are multi-dimensional. Many aspects. Pluses and minuses. Solutions are complex. Politics simplifies reduces these issues to 2 dimensions. Protest music diminishes them to one. Slogans and cliches and one sided rants. Solutions have to be simple and the have to rhyme.

Neil is well intended here, sincere and passionate as shit, well motivated, but it is very hard to do this stuff right. I guess, like Fork or Living With War, I would prefer two really well crafted songs on the subject to a full album of tunes of mixed craft.

There is a lot that is likeable here, the passion and the energy and a lot of the music. But in the end it will fall out of listening rotation fairly fast.

At 7/02/2015 01:41:00 AM, Blogger Old Neg said...

Thrash. I didn't say it was as good as Greendale. Just the best in awhile. I could hardly get through the last few but this one, I come back for more. He seems invigorated showing off for Willie's boys. They're having almost too much fun considering the subject matter. Hope they expand the tour. Ticket sales are slow in Des Moines though so who knows?!

What's your favorite album since Greendale? Not easy is it?! It's a lot easier to play if you say before Greendale. I probably should have said Pill. LWW? They all have their moments. Americana? Just keep cranking them out Neil. Those shirtless European vacations can't be cheap.

At 7/02/2015 09:23:00 AM, Blogger Thrasher Wheat said...

@ Raincheck - yes, it does seem like everything gets boiled down into the simple left/right, liberal/conservative duality construct. We live in sound bites times when the craft of thinking and speaking for oneself is nearly a lost art. It's just so much easier to click that Like button and move along to the next piece of candy.

But your point about preferring two really well crafted songs is not invalid.

It just seems that Neil's off the leash without a filter cranking it out. As with many things, maybe he's just in front of the curve knowing that wheat will be separated from the chaff at the end of the day.

@ O- - sorry about that.

Our favorite album since Greendale? Well it would have to be The Pill. Ramada Inn is just so epic, esp in concert.

Otherwise, we'll always hold FITR dear to our hearts. How can you not like an album that has a song with lyrics about blogging?!

At 7/02/2015 12:40:00 PM, Blogger Old Neg said...

Yep. Ramada Inn ranks right up there with his best. I like your thoughts on Greendale as well. That one is magic to me. Thanks Thrash!


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