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Friday, June 05, 2015

"It's too late in the game for subtle lyrics": Micah Nelson on Neil Young


Micah Nelson - "The Message"

It looks like Neil Young -- in anticipation of the upcoming backlash against the album The Monsanto Years -- has begun to make pre-emptive moves to defend it's core message.

Earlier this week, Neil Young posted a video on Facebook titled "The Message". If you haven't checked it out yet, please do so before proceeding with this posting.

OK, now that you've watched the video and actually returned, we just have to say that we are pleased to see that the Neil camp is getting a little bit more sophisticated in today's information wars.

Neil knows that the Monsanto supporters and PR flaks will lie and twist the facts in an attempt to marginalize The Monsanto Years so he's taking an early offensive position by releasing his "talking points" via band members of Promise of the Real themselves.

When Micah Nelson says in the video that "It's too late in the game for subtle lyrics", we could not agree more. Already, we have seen many comments here at TW about the lyrical quality of The Monsanto Years.

In fact, we here at TW responded to similar charges about the lack of poetry and mystery in the lyrics of his 21st century albums that we referred to as The Message Trilogy: Greendale, Living with War and Fork in the Road:
Recently, we wrote about how the initial consensus around Neil Young's Greendale and Living With War was that they were flawed and misguided. Our opinion was that Fork in the Road seemed to be falling right into the same mindset. But we maintain that the three works together actually constitute a cohesive trilogy that may just validate Neil's early 21st century work.

There's an intriguing arc between the three albums. With Greendale , Neil sounds the alarm that something has gone terribly wrong on a number of fronts. Living With War was a direct confrontation of the need for a call to action. Fork in the Road -- the 3rd installment of the trilogy -- reveals Neil coming to grips with the fact that first you recognize a problem, then you call out the need to address it, and finally you do something about it.

And now we add The Monsanto Years to become "The Message Quadrilogy".

Sadly -- as Micah Nelson so eloquently points out -- "It's too late in the game for subtle lyrics".

Deal with it. Game on.

peace & love. stay calm. no fear. use discernment. recognize the illusion. be the wheat. prepare for the big shift and keep on rockin' in the free world.

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At 6/05/2015 09:21:00 AM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

For me, it doesn't matter too much if the lyrics are subtle or not. The real question is: "are they any good"? "Is this a work of real quality"? That's what matters to me.

I mean, subtle lyrics are often more enjoyable: anyone who prefers the lyrics of T-Bone to those of Going Home should be imprisoned, for instance. But "lyrical brashness as a deliberate statement" is a complete red herring in this instance. It should be clear by now that the reason Neil is no longer writing subtle lyrics is because he no longer knows how to; not consistently, anyway. It's not an artistic decision: just necessity. Possibly because David Briggs is no longer there to bully him, Neil hasn't always put that much care and effort into his lyric writing in the last 10 years or so. It's gradually become a habit that he is so obviously struggling (and sometimes succeeding) to break away from.

Fork In The Road and Living Wth War are mediocre albums not specifically because of their lack of subtlety, but because the songs are fatally undercooked: they sound like they were dashed off in about 2 minutes, with no care or attention paid to "quality control" whatsoever. Compare that approach with, say, Will To Love or Goin' Back, two of Neil's own personal favourites that were given the full respect that they deserved. Or the Ragged Glory songs: both Neil and Poncho have said in interviews that Neil worked especially hard on both the lyrics and arrangements for those songs, struggling at times, but eventually breaking through to genius. Exactly the same comments were made about Sleeps With Angels. Is he still willing to make that supreme effort in pursuit of greatness? Very possibly: we shall see.


Scotsman.




 
At 6/05/2015 09:46:00 AM, Blogger Robert Bard said...

I don't entirely agree with Scotsman...think of "Ohio" or whatever Neil's lyrical input was on "For What It's Worth." Great songs.DIRECT lyrics.No deciphering needed.SERIOUS subject matter,and VERY current. Like news headlines and a concise, factual account.IMMEDIATE attention needed !! Allusional poetry can fog the message...it's too late in the game for that.Go for it, Neil.Love it.

 
At 6/05/2015 10:04:00 AM, Blogger ivaxavi said...

"It's too late in the game for subtle lyrics".
But no for the subtitles...
Come on!!

 
At 6/05/2015 10:20:00 AM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

Robert - The difference with Ohio's sparse lyrics is that, despite it being so short, he still makes every line count, which is why the song still stands up today.

Besides, there is a lot of evocative imagery in that song: it's not just some guy ranting at you. But like I said, nothing wrong with direct and to-the-point lyrics, as long as the quality is still there.



Scotsman.

 
At 6/05/2015 10:32:00 AM, Blogger Columella said...

But "Ohio" is not entirely direct. No mention explicitly of Kent State or the National Guard. The lyrics get the point across, but are also poetic and evocative. Sorry, but I just don't see that in virtually anything Neil has put out in the past decade. Even the panned albums like "Landing on Water" (parts of which I quite like) showed Neil trying out different things - he was trying. Now, it's just getting stuff down and pushing it out. "Ohio" is powerful because it doesn't preach and doesn't tell the story straight out; Neil's current work is not powerful because it's so direct and so (apparently) tossed off.

 
At 6/05/2015 11:05:00 AM, Blogger Keith Burris said...

Thank-you for this Thrasher.

Bless you for what you do,

And God bless Neil and his new young band for their fervor.

-- I am grateful every day for Living With War.

-- I think Greendale will be remembered as a genius record.

As for judging the music on this record: Maybe we should hear it before we judge it.

 
At 6/05/2015 11:47:00 AM, Blogger La Johnson said...

Stills wrote for 'What It's Worth'...is that the new father in law on production for the video? Jeepers feet under the table.

 
At 6/05/2015 12:11:00 PM, Blogger johnnyutensils said...

I like Living With War, Fork in the Road, Greendale, all of it, from the first time I listened to those records. Never had a problem with direct lyrics or indirect lyrics, as long as it works. But this combines direct lyrics with a topic that I can never be on board with. I agree corporations have gotten too big. If he made a record just abut that, great. But I am such a strong believer in science, and the science consistently shows that GMO's are safe. It would be like if he made a record supporting creationists and how evolution is just a theory. Or how global warming is not real, or how vaccines cause autism. It would be sad, and so is this. And Monsanto is just another big corporation, which has too much power due to its size. But 98% of of what is written about Monsanto has no basis in fact (they sue for drifting seeds, they cause farmers in India to commit suicide, sale of terminator seeds.) I own every Neil Young record and have seen every tour since 1983. But I ain't buying this one, and I wouldn't see this tour, and I can't believe I'm saying this.

 
At 6/05/2015 12:17:00 PM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

I agree with Scotman's thoughts. For whatever reason, it seems to me that Neil is either unwilling or incapable of writing songs filled with poetic imagery like he once did. I always felt that even Neil had little idea what his songs really meant, as evidenced by his varying descriptions of them over the years. The words used to flow out of him, and when melded with his voice and guitar, they were magical.

Regarding the "directness" of Ohio, it was direct, but was also incredibly moving and poetic:

We're finally on our own...
What if you knew her and....found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?
_________________________________________________
Today he'd write:

In Ohio, at Kent State University, the students were protesting
and then 4 were shot and killed by the National Guard and
fascist military police who the Governor and Richard M. Nixon
called in because they felt the students didn't have the right
to protest and that they were not loyal good americans
supporting the U.S.A. and the war

and then he'd put sloppy music behind it while he laughed
in the background. (I'm not saying Neil would be happy that the students were killed.)
_________________________________________________

Unfortunately, the organic quality of his songwriting (he'd call it the muse)has disappeared, and he's forced to come up with topics to write about. It seems to me he is at once trying too hard, while not trying hard enough.

He has no real conviction with this Monsanto stuff, and it shows in every way. As I wrote earlier, he's just Speakin' out to Speak Out, and that's not a good thing.

 
At 6/05/2015 01:03:00 PM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

It always strikes me as odd that Neil is so vocally anti-corporation (specifically, farming corporations) and yet is good buddies with John Tyson (of Tyson Foods).

In fact, it's not just a friendship, it's a financial relationship. This guy helped fund Pono. His company funded the first few Farm Aid events. And perhaps not coincidentally, he's also paid many millions of dollars in legal settlements to avoid being prosecuted for bribery charges (look it up if you don't trust me). This has happened on more than one occasion.

I don't know much about Monsanto (yet), to tell the truth. I don't doubt Neil's sincerity. But I worry that if his judgement is so obviously bad when it comes to being befriended by corrupt and manipulative factory farmers, it may be unsound in other areas too.

Scotsman.

 
At 6/05/2015 01:47:00 PM, Blogger Dan1 said...

scotsman,
"don't feel like satan but i am to them" ...

 
At 6/05/2015 02:51:00 PM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...


Dan1 - that's an awesome lyric. I certainly don't think anybody should consider the Tysons to be Satan! I do think they probably should be considered as manipulative factory farmers who have a history of bribery.

From the Washington Post, 1997:

"Poultry giant Tyson Foods Inc. pleaded guilty to giving former agriculture secretary Mike Espy $12,000 in illegal gratuities and consented to pay $6 million in fines and costs...

...According to court papers, during the period it was showering gifts on Espy, Tyson Foods was urging USDA to go slow on imposing new meat and poultry handling instructions".

Look for disturbingly-similar stories up to and including 2011.

Why would one of the world's biggest factory farms choose to finance an anti-factory farm organisation like Farm Aid? At first glance, this makes no sense, none at all. Until you consider those bribery charges, and suddenly it does make sense, in an ugly sort of way.

Scotsman.

 
At 6/05/2015 04:43:00 PM, Blogger dickie said...

Great thoughts from Scotzman on Neil's recent lyrics, or rather his apparent lack of interest, effort or talent in writing them. I agree - not subtle, too blunt. Same goes for some of his recent musical output. Still, I refuse to believe he's lost it. Take "You Never Call", for instance, recent but mysteriously absent from "Le Noise". Those are terrific lyrics, in my opinion: evocative, subtle, funny and very moving. Very much Neil Young: not intellectual (Bob Dylan reads poetry) but visual and emotional (Neil watches tv). The changes in perspective in the song (storm front / link / vacation/ back pain / death / hockey game / Ben) keep you out of balance every step of the way. You don't know whether to laugh or cry, or both. Now, that's great writing.

 
At 6/05/2015 04:52:00 PM, Blogger dickie said...

Also, for a much blunter but still very effective lyric, take "Ramada Inn". A brutally honest song, almost cruel, about aging, estrangement and addiction. "He pours himself another tall one / Closes his eyes and says: that's enough". The lyrics are as lonely and bare as the motel room they conjure up. Kind of a downer sequel to "Don't Be Denied". Still, good writing.

 
At 6/05/2015 05:59:00 PM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

dickie - as a performance, Ramada Inn has so much real feeling and emotion in it that any weaknesses in the lyrics are easily forgiven. Probably Neil's best performed song since Going Home in 2001/2002 (a song which, in my opinion, is up there with the very best of Neil's work).

I've never been a fan of You Never Call. For a song about a recently departed loved one, I just find it a bit too....cold and clinical (much like most of Le Noise). I've tried to like it, but it doesn't move me in the same way it does you. But I think this is more to do with the rather pedestrian musical arrangement and chord structure, rather than the lyrics. But I realise most fans love it, including yourself, and so I will concede defeat and accept that I am wrong on this one!

There are definitely moments on both of the most recent two albums, flashes of genius, that hint Neil may still have it in him to record another masterwork.

Scotsman.



 
At 6/05/2015 06:46:00 PM, Blogger Thrasher Wheat said...

@flyingscotzman - of course, a legitimate question: "Is this a work of real quality"?

Actually, we're just trying to make the point that quality isn't the point on a message album. Sure a quality message would be most awesome.

But messing around in the studio to get it just isn't something that Neil seems to want to do with this album. Afterall, look at the predecessor Storytone. Now that had some high quality production values with the 80 piece orchestra and choir.

And that didn't seem to please fans too much either.

Lastly, always good to bring up the Briggs factor. Maybe Neil has another strong producer album he'll complete someday.

@Robert - The "Ohio" lyrics seem to have been the miracle product of a lightening in the bottle moment. Everything was just right even if Crosby says he should have written another verse.

@ ivaxavi - what?

@ Columella - right, "Ohio" is powerful because it doesn't preach. But it was also the right song at the right moment by the right group.

@ Keith - Always good advice to judge after hearing. and thank you for reading and commenting, too.

@ La - thanks for correction.

@ johnnyutensils - "science consistently shows that GMO's are safe." And many have been blinded by science as well.

Science once told us tobacco was safe and that radiation wasn't harmful.

Open up the tired eyes...

@ TopangaDaze - you're on a roll lately. Hopefully you'll put this lyrics to music someday and play us song.

I agree with Scotman's thoughts. For whatever reason, it seems to me that Neil is either unwilling or incapable of writing songs filled with poetic imagery like he once did. I always felt that even Neil had little idea what his songs really meant, as evidenced by his varying descriptions of them over the years. The words used to flow out of him, and when melded with his voice and guitar, they were magical.

Regarding the "directness" of Ohio, it was direct, but was also incredibly moving and poetic:

We're finally on our own...
What if you knew her and....found her dead on the ground?
How can you run when you know?
_________________________________________________
Today he'd write:

In Ohio, at Kent State University, the students were protesting
and then 4 were shot and killed by the National Guard and
fascist military police who the Governor and Richard M. Nixon
called in because they felt the students didn't have the right
to protest and that they were not loyal good americans
supporting the U.S.A. and the war

and then he'd put sloppy music behind it while he laughed
in the background. (I'm not saying Neil would be happy that the students were killed.)
_________________________________________________

Unfortunately, the organic quality of his songwriting (he'd call it the muse)has disappeared, and he's forced to come up with topics to write about. It seems to me he is at once trying too hard, while not trying hard enough.

He has no real conviction with this Monsanto stuff, and it shows in every way. As I wrote earlier, he's just Speakin' out to Speak Out, and that's not a good thing.

@ flyingscotzman - Look into Monsanto sometime... there's more to the picture than meets the eye...

@ flyingscotzman - we see where you're going with this, but think twice.

@ dickie - Good points on "You Never Call". Hopefully it sees an official release someday.

 
At 6/05/2015 07:22:00 PM, OpenID flyingscotzman said...

This is sort of off-topic, but I was just thinking about how different the Are You Passionate album could have been had it a) been more concise and b) utilized some of the superb live versions from 2001 and 2002.

The released version actually has some really good songs on it, but the performances are hopelessly tame, and some of the duller songs seem to go on forever, diluting the effect of the whole thing. With that in mind, I propose the following running order to be substituted for the orginal album:

1. Gateway Of Love (live with Crazy Horse Europe 2001)
2. Are You Passionate (Live with MGs 19/5/2002)
3. Let's Roll (Live with MGs 18/5/2002)
4. Mr Dissapointment (studio version)
5. Goin Home (Live with MGs 18/5/2002)

As far as I am concerned this short EP "hardcore" version blows away the original album, and is now to be considered the offical version.

Scotsman.

 
At 6/05/2015 09:13:00 PM, Blogger Syscrusher said...

Too bad 'Differently', my favourite song on that album doesn't make your EP version.

 
At 6/05/2015 10:05:00 PM, Blogger Syscrusher said...

I always thought that because Neil seems to really believe in his 'style' of songwriting, what he calls 'Audio Verite', where he's really trying to capture the exact moment that the song is born. He seems to believe that he is an antenna receiving a song and not necessarily writing it himself. And he does not believe in editing himself. I see some more recent songs that are great songs to me but have some lines that I view as bad, and I think it's just because he refuses to edit the original lines that came to him, or through him that is. One example I can think of at the moment is 'It's A Dream'. An amazing song, I always thought of it as the sequel to 'Helpless'. But just one bad line, the one about 'stopping with a Policeman to chat' I guess I just don't buy it coming from a pothead, even Patti Smith changes that one lyric in her excellent live version that I believe may have been posted here.

'You Never Call' is another great recent song. Much like some of his best early songs it gathers images that surround an event but doesn't really describe the event itself. The main difference i think is that 'You Never Call' was a lot easier to figure out what it was actually about by listening to the song. With much of his best early work he'll mention what the idea behind the song was, which always makes me say 'oh yeah makes sense', but the imagery that surrounds the idea is more abstract, and there seems to be so much more to the song than just the original idea. Thinking of Clancy/Flying On The Ground/On The Way Home.

I always felt like at his best, Neil takes an idea for a song and explodes it into an abstraction of that original idea. Where he captures the surrounding images to paint with his words. He's always had more literal songs, realism songs like 'Don't Be Denied'. And as I scan over his songlist right now, I see strong imagery in all his songs. Just glancing at the recent song titles evokes much in my mind. 'Falling Off The Face Of The Earth', 'When God Mad Me' 'No Hidden Path', 'All Those Dreams'...great stuff...images...like when I hear a song and it evokes something. I mean 'Hey Jude' is a great song but I don't get the lasting impressions that I do from many recent Neil songs. Where Neil's lyrics are impressed on the song, it makes me look at a song title and see a painting. When I look at 'Hey Jude' I just really get a sense of the melody and performance. Make sense? Hard to articulate these thoughts...
I mean listen to 'Say Hello Chicago'. It's surely inspired by some simple event, like playing a show in Chicago in 2014, but he gathered the surrounding images to paint a picture that leaves an impression on me. (And I'm talking about the solo piano version of course.)

Love passes fast...

 
At 6/05/2015 11:59:00 PM, Blogger mark said...

a slight edit

recognize the illusion.
use discernment.
be the rain.

potrny, red rocks, 7/8, new music, yeah.

 
At 6/06/2015 12:07:00 AM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

Good thoughts Syscrusher--tough to articulate, but I think you did it well.

For me, I think a key distinction to be made here is that for many, when Neil gets directly topical, much is lost both lyrically and musically. When he writes from his "personal" space, even his moderate failures still contain enough universal truths while allowing the listener to walk away with different thought pictures in mind.

I don't particularly like You Never Call, but at the very least, it is authentic (at least to my definition). This Monsanto music just doesn't feel authentic, it feels forced and lazy--not exactly the best way to make a meaningful statement.

 
At 6/06/2015 02:42:00 AM, Blogger dickie said...

Thanks, Scotsman, interesting reply. I think what you're referring to as "cold" in "You Never Call" may be the storm front.. ;-) But you're right, the song has a certain coldness to it, or distance. Which I think is Young's way of blending sadness with anger, which he does in many songs. Ironically, Young's trademark, the distance hits you right you in the face. In "You Never Call" I think you can hear the loneliness and sadness in the lyrics, but also in the depressing, slogging chord changes (bit like "Words", another sad and quietly angry song). The anger and resentment almost break out in the chorus (why don't you call, if your're on such a great vacation, while i'm working?). May not be up there with his greatest work, but still a fine song about loss and mourning.
I agree with critics of Neil's recent 'preachy' lyric., "Who's Gonna Stand Up" was a terrible clunker, much of his new output is not much better. Big difference with his earlier topical or 'message' songs, IMHO: "Ohio", or "Southern Man" are very direct, emotional, up personal and close, but they don't spell out the message like a bill board, or a black board.

 
At 6/06/2015 03:19:00 AM, Blogger dickie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 6/06/2015 03:54:00 AM, Blogger dickie said...

Thrasher: Great take on "Ohio" and Neil's apparent loss of the muse in writing lyrics.
Last thought: our man seems to be enjoying himself, kind of a second hippie coming, so that may be what this is all about - a lyrics be damned kind of attitude on his part.

 

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