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Monday, June 22, 2015

NPR First Listen: Neil Young + Promise Of The Real, 'The Monsanto Years'

From review on NPR:
"People Want To Hear About Love" is the most artful moment on The Monsanto Years, Young's 36th studio album as a solo artist. Here, we have a series of taut and stone-simple Neil Young songs that fit together under a catchall concept (about companies wielding extraordinary influence over many aspects of our quality of life), each powered by its own supply of righteous fury. Enjoyment of it probably depends less on whether you agree with Young's positions than on how much tolerance you have for a mantra, repeated frequently, using the three syllables that make up the trade name Monsanto. It also helps to like your harangues set to three-chord rock and expressed through triadic melodies. This is not subtle, Harvest Moon Neil, brooding at the piano. This is ornery, snarly Neil. Give him a megaphone and a transcript of these lyrics, put him on a street corner and watch what happens.

At times in the lyrics, there's a sense that Young simply cranked up the Current Events Couplet Generator and let rip about everything that's bothering him. One minute, "Big Box" tackles the corporate bailouts — "Too big to fail / Too rich for jail" — and in the next he's swerved into the campaign-finance quagmire: "They cast their votes and no one gets excited," he shouts, sounding two steps away from meltdown, "because they are Citizens United." Other songs focus more successfully on a single theme: The verses of "A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop" explain Young's dismay over the Vermont GMO-labeling controversy in which Starbucks and Monsanto became allies. And the somber title track breaks down, in simple language, Young's position on Monsanto's unique control over the agriculture industry. "The farmer knows he's got to grow what he can sell ... Every year he buys the patented seeds / Poison-ready, they're what the corporation needs."

Young can be counted on to go big when venting indignation — remember the massive choir he deployed on 2006's Living With War, to help him unfurl a sweeping lament about Iraq? Here, he gets help from Promise Of The Real, a proudly ragged rock band fronted by Micah and Lukas Nelson, sons of Willie Nelson. Though not as loose as Crazy Horse was in its prime, the band understands exactly the guitar punctuation each vocal phrase needs — sometimes that means sinewy overlapping lead lines, and sometimes it means buzzsaw chords pushed to the edge of distortion. At times, Young's tortured diatribes can take up all the air in a mix; the album's strongest moments, including the Stones-esque "Workin' Man," achieve a balance between howling vocal outrage and badass rhythmic stomp. The scruff in the music brings to life his troubling big idea about the rape of the land and its corresponding impact on the soul.

Whatever you think of Young's politics or methods, give him this much: After all this time, after decades spent ranting about nuclear power and corporate malfeasance and the plight of the family farmer, he still sounds like a true believer — and an idealist. He's reached the age where people often become resigned, but chooses, perhaps quixotically, to play the worried town crier. Of course, there's no shortage of material for sequels.
Full review on NPR.

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At 6/22/2015 09:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First listen and this sounds much better than other more recent work, certainly better than Fork in the Road, not just a curiosity like A Letter Home and for me a more comprehensive record than lets say Chrome Dreams which was patchy in mixing old and new material. Also really struck by the great guitar interplay with the Promise of the Real, nice and loose rock perfect for summer gigs.

As for all the debate about whether his observations on Monsanto et al are accurate, I don't think it matters. We all know big business is generally sucking us dry and there is something generally uncomfortable about all the companies named checked, so I'm fine for an old hippy protester to rant about it in an impressionistic way, start a debate and not punish him for the details.

Ultimately I think as a statement of where NY is right now this could turn out to be a late career classic.

At 6/23/2015 05:43:00 AM, Blogger La Johnson said...

Thanks Neil for all the music...the king is gone but he's not forgotten move aside for Jason Isbell.

At 6/23/2015 07:11:00 AM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

I'm sure Jason has a great website for you to enjoy. This site is for those who enjoy Neil Young. Just find someone who's turning and you will come around.

At 6/23/2015 08:07:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here are my first impressions.

Firstly, his stance on Monsanto seems justified to me. So that's the first hurdle out the way.

My next observation would be that Neil has got some pretty good ideas for songs here. It's true that the emotional richness and storytelling genius of older songs with a comparable theme (e.g This Old House, Rockin' In The Free World) are largely absent here, at least for the most part: giving the lyrics a sense of numbness that seems in stark constrast to Neil's enthusiasm for the subject matter.

The album is a lot better sonically than it is lyrically. It's more than the sum of it's parts. Neil sounds fully engaged and performs well. If anything, his guitar and vocal presence occasionally gets lost under all the other instruments and voices.

But overall this is a fun, dreamy sounding record; a rich soundscape that marries well with the subject matter, and also helps disguise the flatness of (some of) the lyrics. It's too early for me to judge the quality of the arrangements etc, it takes a few listens for them to sink in.

Also, I'd say that people criticizing Neil for mis-representing the science of GMOs are perhaps correct, but may still be missing the overall point, I think. Neil seems to be attacking Monsanto mainly for the stranglehold they have on farmers, which strikes me as a perfectably reasonable stance. It's as much an "anti-corporate power" and "anti-greed" album as it is an "anti-GMO" album, and therfore one I can get on board with.

...Now all we need to do is convince Neil that his mates high up in the hierarchy of Tyson Foods are just as bad as Monsanto (if not worse), and then we will be getting somewhere.


At 6/23/2015 09:16:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

PS Great comment DavidR Flanker....

At 6/23/2015 09:41:00 AM, Blogger The Zuma Band said...

Well, this record will chart because every ticket sold for the concerts gets you a CD or download, so I'm waiting for the four CDs I'll get so I can hear it better than that awful NPR feed.

I do find myself humming and re-listening to "Big Box", which feels like a bummer bookend to "Ordinary People" almost 30 years later. I've mentioned it before, but musically the songs are strong, but certainly weaker in how he handles the lyrics, both in their construction and in their delivery. They are deliberately clumsy; he's at times essentially yelling, which I find annoying. Sing, don't yell! I agree with you! Why are you yelling at somebody who already wants to hear you? Unfortunately, the lyrics are not made to be musical, hence the didactic jeremiads. If he wanted to he could edit more; as much as he credits/blames "the muse", he has edited before. Even though "Cinnamon Girl" came to him in a fevered state, there is a sheet with his original tinkerings of the lyrics in "Waging Heavy Peace"-

What I do appreciate is that each of his albums from the past 10 years have very unique and thematic/conceptual cores. As such they are quite distinct from each other, and have produced a range of songs from great to terrible, with a lot in between. In particular, both "Storytone" and a "A Letter Home" had good material overwhelmed by the technical conceits/gimmicks governing their execution. In this they remind me of "Everybody's Rockin", also a concept record which is ruined by every track being drenched in reverb. OTOH "Greendale" is a masterpiece, as it is a conceptually complete work not overwhelmed by its technical peculiarities.

The bottom line is that he pursues projects with a zeal and impulsive intensity that, when the elements are well aligned and balanced relative to each other can produce great results. The lesser work happens when he gives too much energy to some parts of the whole and not as much to the other elements.

Good design is the well considered organization of parts into a whole. The same applies to music making.

At 6/23/2015 11:12:00 AM, Blogger La Johnson said...

'What I do appreciate is that each of his albums from the past 10 years have very unique and thematic/conceptual cores'- that got me thinking I'll have to dig out all those records again to see I can find a thematic/conceptual core - whatever that means.

At 6/23/2015 11:52:00 AM, Blogger The Zuma Band said...

"thematic/conceptual core" means that there is some organizing principle at work in the development of the entire album, as opposed to an album that is collection of individual pieces. IMO the weaker records are because he lets the imposed production constraints overwhelm the other parts.

"Greendale"- Funky home made high school musical about the pressures-personal, economic, environmental, political- on a modern family

"Prairie Wind" - Generally a reverie about NY's family

"Living With War"- Like "The Monsanto Years", a howling jeremiad, but stronger and more angrily poetic in his anger at the reckless waste of the war in Iraq. Heavy, powerful.

"Chrome Dreams 2" This is a collection of individual songs loosely put together

"Fork In The Road"- very much in the angry environmental rant mode of "The Monsanto Years", with the same problem of clunky lyrics

"Le Noise"- An ostensibly "solo" performance altered for the better by the elaborate audio layers built by Daniel Lanois,. The richness of his production meshed well with the lyrics.

"Americana"- NY's electric interpretation of folk classics. Very straightforward and punchy. Crazy Horse warming up in a good way.

"Psychedlic Pill"- More of a collection album, though the theme, such as it is, is also elegiac, both about his past and his marriage

"Storytone" was dominated/overwhelmed by the big orchestration/"one mic" business without any Neil Young guitar. He's also favoring his quavering/vulnerable vocals. Too much orchestra set against fragile vocals is a bad contrast. The other versions "solo" versions are better.

"A Letter Home" was almost the opposite, except for the "one mic" bit and the quavering/fragile vocals. The peculiarities of the crude audio- scratchy, limited sonic range -dominated. The production technique, such as it is, distracts from his continuing elegiac themes. And also distracts from great songs deserving more respect as covers.

At 6/23/2015 12:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The theme of Psychedelic Pill is Waging Heavy Peace. Psychedelic Pill is a soundtrack to the book.

Ramada Inn, for instance. people assume it's about Neil and Pegi: instead, the real inspiration can be found in Neil's few paragraphs towards the end of the book on Tim Drummond (someone who started drinking a lot after breaking up with his wife - sound familiar?).

All the other songs are in the book too.


At 6/23/2015 04:27:00 PM, Blogger ANDREW BYROM said...

I've listened too it a few times today and am really enjoying it. That certainly hasn't been the case with the last few NY albums. Workin' Man is very reminiscent of Time Fades Away to my ears. Some great melody's and interplay on this album, agree the lyrics are clunky in places but given the subject matter and the speed of recording thats hardly a surprise.

I've gone with the iTunes download and still waiting for some new on the vinyl. Would be typical of Neil if this doesn't get a vinyl release, given he thinks the whole Record Store Day and vinyl resurgence is a fad.... :-)

At 6/23/2015 05:17:00 PM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

Thanks Mr Johnson - had never heard of Jason Isbell's ex DBT output. Contrary to the reply this is a useful site for this information..sooner or later we all get old.

At 6/23/2015 08:12:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

I agree that I think it's appropriate to mention other artists on this site in the manner done so by Mr. Johnson. While this may not be a Jason Isbell site, it's a great place to mention artists who, like Isbell, carry the torch from Neil. Isbell is probably the greatest young-(ish) songwriter, singer, guitarist and performer. His live version of "Like a Hurricane" is scorching and moved me more than I've been moved by NY in years. And I love Neil.

At 6/23/2015 08:50:00 PM, Blogger Babbo B. said...

Vinyl in August, according to Rolling Stone (and several other recent reports):

At 6/24/2015 07:03:00 AM, Blogger Peacelover Doc said...

Mention every artist you want to but this is the wrong site to tell Neil to move aside.

At 6/24/2015 11:04:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a fan of 40-plus years, I miss the craftsmanship of Neil's lyrics. Think of "Old Laughing Lady," or "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing." The 25-year-old Neil can certainly teach the Neil of today a lot about lyrics, mood, nuance, etc. It seems to me that Neil feels he is bigger than his songs. Again, where is the craftsmanship? I will always love Neil, Bob, Pete Townshend, and a few others for all they have given to us.

At 6/25/2015 12:02:00 AM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

@ Bob: Interestingly put when you said that "it seems Neil feels he is bigger than his songs." I feel you're on to something, and my takes is it's a combination of fear and arrogance. I think he feels that if he releases something topical, at least it will get some attention, and if he simply releases odd, under-rehearsed, unpolished "craftless" music, it will add to his artistic credibility in a perverse way.

It's a shame, because although I feel he's lost quite a bit as his twilight years have approached, he has had good recent fragments of music, but he's unwilling to bring them to maturity. Instead, he chooses to release his demo tapes at alarming frequency. I used to eagerly anticipate his releases, but now it seems like one's coming every other month and the quality is lacking.

He's still an entertaining live performer (when he's not in full drawn out false ending extended grunge mode), but I feel his legacy is what's on record, and it bothers me that some "outsiders" will listen to and judge him on some of his poorer recent work.

I know I sound like a broken record, but hey, maybe Neil and I have more in common than I even thought...

At 6/25/2015 12:50:00 AM, Blogger The Metamorphic Rocker said...

I concur with scottsman's sense that this album is more anti-corporate than anti-GMO. I also like the overall musical sound of this album, a kind of folk/grunge mashup. Promise of the Real makes fora refreshing backing group, providing a sound that's somewhat cleaner than Crazy Horse but still has lots of life, energy, and spontaneity. When it comes to lyrics, I think it's first worth noting that the rock song form leaves a lot of room ambiguity and simplification of ideas. You can't really work a manifesto into rock lyrics, even with the topical directness Neil has gone for here. I think that may be where the impressionistic quality of these songs, as someone else described it, can come into play. I will also that I think the direct topicality can involve artistic trade-offs as far as the poetry, or lyricism, of words. I'm willing to take that as part and parcel of this kind of songwriting, but I'm mighty glad that not every album is quite like this. Some of the beauty, grace, or pure aesthetic pleasure can be lost in favor of a more polemical bent. There's a lot of soul here, but it's shown in a much different way than on, say, Harvest Moon, or even Chrome Dreams II.

I'm impressed with some of the melodies and musical ideas, particularly on People Want to Hear about Love, which does admittedly walk a delicate line between quite clever and topical overload. I love the intro to New Day for Love, and the song is very Neil in a number of regards. I stand by my positive words for Wolf Moon. I've listened to the album maybe two and a half times, and it's emerging as one of the highlights. I think a quiet, gentle number does a great deal to balance out this particular album. Rules of Change and If I Don't Know are also starting to stand out, particularly Rules, which epitomizes the grunge/folk mashup I alluded to above. The drums have an almost Native American feeling and the dark fuzziness of the mix (to the point that I was actually straining to make out the words) creates a surreal, somewhat unnerving but certainly unique feeling and soundscape that calls out for attention regardless of the lyrics (though they may also be some of the better ones on the album). I did say I'm glad that this isn't every album, but at the same time, I can relate to what Neil and the Nelsons are laying down with Big Box. It's mainly that song and New Day for Love that have the "Greendale without the storyline" feeling I may have mentioned in another comment.

As to where this stacks up with his other recent work, it's very soon to call it, but I'd say it has its place in the canon. It's not for all seasons but I appreciate where it's coming from. I agree with the point about Neil's recent albums have strong conceptual foundations, some more than others. I would add that even Chrome Dreams II, which may seem musically fragmented and uses material recorded years apart, has thematic unity in its spiritual subject matter and soul-searching. It's actually one of my favorite albums since 2000. I also found Storytone tone to be inspired, and can't agree at all with comments that it gets lost in the orchestral/big band "gimmick". To the contrary, I think that approach did a lot for that particular set of songs and I rarely turn to the solo versions of most of them. Some are better than others, but if Neil, independent of his topical mode, keeps churning out songs like Plastic Flowers, Say Hello to Chicago, Tumbleweed, All Those Dreams, and When I Watch you Sleeping, I'll be pretty happy. That album dealt with strong human themes and its best selections, for me, represent some essential ingredients of inspiration, beauty, and sensitivity to human experiences that I'd like to see continue to live in Neil's work.

At 6/25/2015 05:08:00 AM, Blogger La Johnson said...

Every cover tells a that Ms Hannah?

At 6/25/2015 11:43:00 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6/26/2015 12:52:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

"It's a bad day to do nothin". love that line. Ah hell, still love ya Neil. It's pretty much unconditional love at this point! We all get old. Most of us get fat. I'm still waiting on the plastic surgery damaged older but younger chick to make me act a fool. Rock on old man!

At 6/26/2015 01:49:00 AM, Blogger Andy Walters said...

Younger rock chick at 54 ! Stop it.


At 6/26/2015 06:03:00 PM, Blogger Dan1 said...

To add a few thoughts to the impressionistic vs. literal lyrics debate ... true 'Ohio' remains one of the most impressive protest pieces in that its arguably impressionistic .. that said, in general if you want to rant about something as esoteric as GMOs its hard to create an impressionistic song ... the albums which tend to the protest seem to almost require more literal lyrics as the agenda seems to be deliver a clear message. The impressionistic songs were almost meant to mean whatever you (the listener) want them to mean, and that seems to be consistent with the way Neil described them back in the day. I mean, what are the lyrics in Tell Me Why saying?:

Sailing heart-ships thru broken harbors Out on the waves in the night
Still the searcher must ride the dark horse Racing alone in his fright. Tell me why, tell me why

Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself, When you're old enough to repay but young enough to sell?

In that vein perhaps the recent protest albums are more assertive as they force their meaning upon us, leaving us less imagination to experience the lyrics in our own way ... this seems deliberate ... albeit its not clear if Neil's poetic touch is on leave and he's doing the best he can or if he just wants to hit people over the head with the words of protest ...

Arguably Kent State screamed so clearly for a protest song and was seared so deeply into the times that Ohio could afford to be impressionistic while so clearly conveying the outrage, nobody could have mistaken its purpose, it didn't need to be a literal to be understood ... its doubtful protesting GMOs could gain such a collective consciousness behind it as an impressionistic song ... so the protest here needs to be more forceful and direct ... Neil is waking people up to the problem more than conveying the collective outrage ...

After one listen Its not in the camp of one and done like FITR was but am also doubting I'll be pulling it off the shelf for a listen a year from now ...

When Neil puts out an album I don't love (usually once every 5 years) I try to remind myself that there's usually another one around the corner ... and he streams it for free so you don't have to buy it and the live shows are always exceptional ... throw it all on the scale its a very good deal to be a fan ...


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