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Thursday, August 13, 2015

A Re-Appraisal of "The Monsanto Years" by Neil Young and Promise of the Real

There's been quite a bit of back and forth, up and down, and over and over on Neil Young's latest album The Monsanto Years with Promise of the Real.

FWIW, the Metacritic index score currently stands at 61, ranging from a high of a perfect "100" from The Guardian (by critic Jon Dennis) and a low of 20 from New York Daily News (by critic Jim Faber).

But as a PopMatters review by Lee Zimmerman states: "While the message often appears to overpower the music, the album is nowhere near the unlistenable mess some critics have claimed."

From PopMatters:
Both an unapologetic rabble-rouser and an unrepentant rocker, Neil Young has never been one to deny his muse. From his earliest output under the auspices of the Buffalo Springfield through a fifty year career marked by continuous starts and shifts, he’s proven himself a chameleon of multiple hues, continually shifting his stance with each new turn in the road. Few artists could absorb such inconsistency, one that ranges from the rage and resolve of his work with Crazy Horse to the sensitive singer/songwriter fare constructed around a single guitar and a howl of despair. And when Young’s on a tear, be it through the confounding techno circuitry of Trans, the daunting experimentation of Arc, the haphazard happenstance of Psychedelic Pill or the unrepressed anger of Living with War, commercial considerations be damned, because Young’s continually determined to express his emphatic sentiments.

Like Living with War, The Monsanto Years is an unblemished social statement that aims both barrels at multiple targets of scorn. In this case it happens to be a company that Young has accused of fouling the environment and contributing to the greed and overreach of corporate America. Yet while the message often appears to overpower the music, the album is nowhere near the unlistenable mess some critics have claimed. In fact, many of the songs are extremely accessible, even when compared to much of the earlier music that can be gleaned from Young’s catalog. Few will be destined to become classics, but many may reach a second tier. Granted, there’s no “Harvest Moon”, or “Cinnamon Girl”, or “A Child’s Came to Fame”, or in fact, anything of that ilk whatsoever. But given the low-cast hue of “Wolf Moon”—a song that might actually have found a good fit on Harvest Moon—the terse anthemic stance of “A New Day for Love” or the whistling refrain that embellishes “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop”, the worries that this is an overbearing, inconsistent and excruciating encounter prove mainly to be for naught.

Granted, the lyrics are somewhat cumbersome and heavy-handed, further detracting from the possibility of ensuring these songs will ever be considered of the hummable variety. “It’s a bad day to do nuthin’ / While so many people need our help / To keep their lands from the greedy / Who only plunder for themselves”, Young wails on “A New Day for Love”. Be forewarned: any suggestion that this will encourage the masses to sing along in combined protest is merely wishful thinking.

Nevertheless, Young has an able crew in tow in the form of Promise of the Real, which, under the direction of Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Michah, comes like a sufficiently untamed Crazy Horse. Their rampaging audio assault on “Working Man” and “Big Box” not only adds to the album veracity, but ensures its overall impact as well.

There will be those who will be understandably disappointed that Young has opted to voice his frustrations in such an overt and aggressive way. Nevertheless, it’s hard to fault the man for being true to his passion and purpose. The Monsanto Years may not be an album for the ages, but there’s never a moment of doubt that the conviction is clear.
As for us here at Thrasher's Wheat? As always with Neil, "Live Music Is Better". Songs like "Big Box", while on the album seem a bit tame, in concert totally rock out.

Seriously -- if you've been following the Rebel Content tour (like we have here and here) -- you know what we mean.

See you on the rail this fall!

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At 8/13/2015 12:18:00 PM, Blogger DC said...

A Child's Claim to Fame????

At 8/13/2015 02:27:00 PM, Blogger Genghis Kon said...

I know, right? It seems the interview wanted to impress people with an obscure Neil song, but instead ended up using a Richie Furay song instead. Go figure! That aside, I agree with the review. The album was pretty good, beats out Storytone, for sure. Big Box is just such a cool song, too.

At 8/13/2015 04:56:00 PM, Blogger Mr Henry said...

The Rolling Stone website has their list of "The 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time", and Neil comes in at a respectable #17, just before Prince and right after Leonard Cohen. Of course, these lists are pretty much all done by committee and, as such, always have something to please and infuriate anyone and everyone. Come to think of it, wasn't #17 also his position in the guitarist rating?!

First of all, you need to take that "All Time" part with a twenty pound grain of salt. Apparently such geniuses as Duke Ellington, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin couldn't make the cut. Then you can start some comparisons and see if John Prine (#94) is really only three steps better than Taylor Swift (#97), and after Billie Joe Armstrong at #93. Or if Bruce Springsteen (#14) should be right after Hank Williams (#13). Hint: these are rhetorical questions (I hope).

Bob is #1, then they separate Paul McCartney at #2 and John Lennon at #3 -- but Jagger/Richards are a combo at #6? No mention of Laura Nyro or Townes Van Zandt? Oh, and apparently Ashford and Simpson (#83) are better than REM (#85), Sam Cooke (#86) and Kris Kristofferson (#87), and R. Kelly (#80) is better than Marvin Gaye at #82 -- who knew?!

That's just my reaction after a 10 minute scan of the list, so have fun coming up with your own WTF comparisons. But the one thing this does show is just how many great songwriters there were and are, and how everyone has their own take on what's greatest.

At 8/13/2015 06:54:00 PM, Blogger Genghis Kon said...

Rolling Stone is a rag. Always has been. They trashed innovative groups like Zeppelin back in the day when it was the cool thing to do. Once Zep's popularity was established, they came crawling back with unending praise, as if they had willed them on from the start. They gave plenty of artists this treatment. The writing has become rather mediocre (even now), and they constantly praise the hacks that dominate the modern industry in an attempt to stay relevant. Also, have you ever seen the commenters? All they ever do is bitch, and about everything! Nothing ever satisfies them! Just my two cents.

At 8/13/2015 10:06:00 PM, Blogger Mr Henry said...

Sorry, my intention was never to trash Rolling Stone, which I've been reading for over 45 years now. I was simply mentioning the fact that Neil was in the list and rated pretty high, and that some of the others were kind of interesting, the way lists and such always are.

Some of the best writers of the past half century have written for the Stone: Lester Bangs, Ralph J. Gleason, Ben Fong Torres, Paul Nelson, Hunter Thompson, Matt Taibbi, P. J. O'Rourke, David Lipsky, Paul Nelson, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, David Fricke, Richard Meltzer and many others. The John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Neil Young interviews, the issues after the passing of Jimi, Janis, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Robin Williams...all great, great stuff.

So no, that's surely not my definition of "a rag", never mind if there have been a few down years along the way. They've always been a friend to Neil and a champion of his music. Didn't mean to distract from the real topic at hand, which is Neil's current music -- that's what is really important. Anyway that's it from me for awhile.

“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”
― Glenn Gould

At 8/14/2015 10:56:00 AM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...

Regarding "The Monsanto Years", I've been on the hyper-critical side of the debate. I think most everyone agrees that it's far from his best work, and from that launching point it's easy to proclaim the work as either a modest success or modest failure.

Like most of Neil's "questionable" work, if one is willing to listen more than once or twice, there are often redeeming nuggets to be mined. On the positive side, I've started appreciating the overall vibe of the musicianship. There's a certain loose roadhouse feel played by familiar musical friends hanging out and picking up their guitars together for the first or second time. It's admirable in that respect and somewhat entertaining. There's also a good variety of styles at play ranging from soft acoustic to mellow rock to harder edge blues ramble and crunch rock.

As I've said before, the real problem is that the lyrics are terrible, and when paired with poor melodies the results fall flat. My real frustration is that the "bones" of a good to great work were all in place. For whatever reason, Neil didn't commit to producing a mature work. He opted for a one take and done approach lyrically, musically and vocally. To my ears there are easy lyrical and vocal edits that could have and should have been made on virtually every song. But our willfully perverse hero remained true to himself, or the version of himself he wants us to see, or the version of himself he's becoming as time becomes more precious, or....

On balance, the album isn't quite as bad as I initially thought. Also, it led to a great mini-tour with POTR, so as of now I consider the whole project a modest success (even though I disagree with his direct Monsanto/GMO message).

Take my advice
Don't listen to me

At 8/14/2015 11:27:00 AM, Blogger thrasher said...

@DC - good catch on that. Actually, it gives the review a bit more legitimacy. Makes it seem that the reviewer may not be a Neil expert like some folks around here. You know the kind that run blogs and radio shows who act like they know everything and smackdown commenters.


Thanks Genghis & Mr H. for comments. 1st, regarding the Rolling Stone listing, agree about the arbitrary & subjective nature of these sorts of exercises. There's some usefulness to them but the real value lies in debates like these.

Of course, we've long disputed these rankings and place Neil much higher (see the following "outrageous" statement and justification: "second most influential singer-songwriter of the 20th century still performing today".

Anyways, agree that many of the comments on RS are quite annoying regardless of topic. And agree that RS has had a long history of excellent writers. The financial journalism that Matt Taibbi has done has been way out in front of the WSJ, NYT, etc.

Also, thanks Mr H for the wonderful "tone" of your reply. It is an example that we ourselves need to apply more when we have a disagreement. We've tried very hard over the years to become more humble in our comment debates. Back in the LWW days things were so acrimonious that we were practically crippled by the animosity and it's taken a long time to recover. But we're trying to get better every day album and every day.

@TopangaDaze - did you see any of the concerts on the tour? If so, what did you think? If not, why didn't you? Will you make any this fall? If not, why not?
ps - love that handle.

At 8/14/2015 12:19:00 PM, Blogger Genghis Kon said...

Sorry I trashed Rolling Stone so much. Sometimes the way they do things just pisses me off. They've had tons of great writers in their time, Cameron Crowe being one of my favorites. But for every great writer like that, there is a dick like John Mendelsohn. I still read Rolling a Stone from time to time, but it's definitely not one I frequent.

At 8/14/2015 12:38:00 PM, Blogger Jonathan said...

What tour dates this fall?

At 8/14/2015 02:45:00 PM, Blogger Mr Henry said...

Thanks so much T, you made my day! We have a "Farm Share" this Summer and I'm eating lots and lots of delicious organic veggies; must be doing something right.

And no problem, GK, I can also get frustrated like that at times -- I'm a lot like you are. You've written some great words about Neil, and I always enjoy reading your Comments on TW.

Yet another absolutely gorgeous day here On The Beach. I can't believe how incredible this Summer has been and continues to be. What a great weekend to welcome Dick Dale back home to Massachusetts! He's playing at the Iron Horse (Northampton) tonight, at the Middle East in Cambridge tomorrow night, and then the Beachcomber in Wellfleet Sunday evening. His amazing music and guitar are and forever will be legendary, but his longevity, spirit and iron will in the face of unimaginable illness is what's truly inspiring. Check the link below -- if you don't have goose bumps within the first thirty seconds, then I guess that I just can't help you.

"We are all in this together. May each of us, as a member of the human family, respond to the moral obligation to make this collaboration possible. This is my heartfelt plea."
--His Holiness The Dalai Lama

At 8/14/2015 08:08:00 PM, Blogger TopangaDaze said...


No, I didn't make it to any of the shows, but heard/saw most of them via various means. Great variety of songs played with a fresh passion, and even the Monsanto stuff sounded pretty good. POTR brought out the young in Neil..

If they continue the tour somewhere in the mid-atlantic, I'll be there!

My new gripe: CNN's Music of the Seventies. Sixty minutes, and not one mention of Neil. At the very end, they did show a quick glimpse of a picture of CSNY in concert. Hard to believe.

No gripe with Rolling Stone. Sure they're an easy target for criticism (not unlike Monsanto), but they virtually created the medium and did it passionately. And as mentioned, they've tended to be very kind to Neil.

At 8/15/2015 05:47:00 PM, Blogger SONY said...

I made a comment after the Bethel Woods-tock show that the new songs were much better live. I had bought the album the day of the show and listened to it a couple times on the drive there. Now after a few weeks and a many more turns, this album is excellent Neil doing his thing and directing the muse exactly where he wants it. At first the lyrics seem a bit out of stroke and annoying, but listening to the message and the passion brings it up to a higher level for me. I remember getting goose bumps listening to Living With War, and I'm getting some more now the further into this I get.

It's a bad day to do nothing, I'm damn glad he's doing something! This album is back to the garden for me as far as new Neil Young music. I can listen to this one all day.

At 8/16/2015 12:25:00 PM, Blogger thrasher said...

@ Genghis K- no worries.

@ Jonathan - see Mican Nelson interview in latest Rolling Stone.

@ Mr Henry - enjoy being out On The Beach this summer.

Thanks for link and we'll check out. Dick Dale is always amazing and we are all in this together.

@ TopangaDaze - definitely check out if in the neighborhood.

@ SONY - funny how some things sound better in the car on the way to a concert. One of our best memories and fun things to do.... road trip to the concert, tailgate. On the whole pre-show scene. enjoy

At 8/16/2015 05:08:00 PM, Blogger Raincheck said...

I like a lot of the music on this album. More the music than the songwriting, the feel, the passion is really there. And, as many have said better than I, the lyrics can be pretty clunky.

I agree this is FAR from an unlistenable mess. It's Neil getting really into it with a great band. But in the end the lyrical problems and the journalistic nature of the subject matter will, I think push this one out of the listening pile and into the archives pretty fast and pretty permanently.

The real effect of this release has been a kick ass set of live shows.


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