Neil Young Rocks The Message

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A bit less activism and more timeless music and songs for everyone just might have yielded a masterpiece

Monsanto Years cover

Neil Young + Promise of the Real
The Monsanto Years
In A Word: Almost

It starts promisingly enough: 12 bars of a classic Neil Young pastoral folk-rock melody, pause, then in bolts stirring electric rock riffs with the trademark might of Crazy Horse (with a bit less slush, which is one of the Horse’s charms, by the way). But these hints of things we love about Young get spoiled not long after he starts singing, a pattern that sadly continues throughout most of his latest album recorded with the young band Promise of the Real.

One can’t exactly call this disc and one’s reactions to it contradictory – it’s pure Neil Young in a number of ways we’ve grown used to by now. Yet in the end The Monsanto Years  boils down to not quite fulfilled promise (pardon the pun) of a new musical collaboration (the album’s upside). And flag waving for favored causes that just doesn’t catch enough wind in a way that makes anyone not already beside him want to salute and follow into battle (the downside). I say the latter regrettably, as I am right there with Young in his concerns: rapacious and heartless corporate capitalism bespoiling America and our democracy, genetic modification corrupting our food supply and its seed patents threatening farmers, the worrisome state of our planet’s health and more.

There’s a not so fine line between poetics and polemics, and Young stumbles over it throughout in the politically admirable yet artistically wrong direction with his lyrics, at least as far as listener appeal goes. Which is a shame, as there’s the makings here of a great Neil Young album in the music (and it has been a bit too long since he’s really delivered a winner). POTR – one of the most impressive new bands I’ve seen play a scintillating live show over the last decade or so – freshen and reinvigorate his classic sound in a way that should invite repeat listening.

720x405-neilyoungbandimagehiresThe nearly eight-minute title song has a seductive slowly marching groove, nutritiously crunchy guitars and incendiary six-string interplay between Neil and Lukas Nelson (son of Willie whose talent apple falls up close to the tree), and a truly singalong chorus… except who wants to chime along to “Monsanto, Monsanto” in the years to come? The LP’s first single, “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” has similar charms at a bit faster tempo plus some nifty whistling. “Wolf Moon,” the least political song here, sounds like a sweet outtake from Harvest. The instrumental tracks for “Big Box,” “Workin’ Man,” “Rules Of Change” and “If I Don’t Know” are all seriously rocking smokers.

Young shows he’s aware of how some folks don’t want to mix activism and entertainment on the bristling “People Want To Hear About Love.” Yet he ignores the lesson behind the endurance of such great topical Bob Dylan songs as “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” – metaphor trumps literalism most all of the time, even if he did score with the almost reportorial “Ohio” back in 1971. But those were different times….

And God bless him, when Neil gets a burr under his saddle on some issue or another, he puts his money where his mouth is like a man on a mission. This album will certainly get the already converted to think twice about driving through Starbucks for a latté and read labels in the grocery store a little more closely. But the best political music should help change minds if not how we live. On this set, however, the singing for the causes becomes a bit too much and a more than a tad too clumsy.

The sound is so strong on The Monsanto Years that it isn’t like his Pearl Jam album, Mirror Ball – a diversion to spin once or twice and then file away. So I’m hoping the ever-restless Young does at least one more disc with Promise of the Real that’s right in the old Neil Young pocket like his best with Crazy Horse to remind all of his artistic greatness. And who knows? Maybe it’ll get the agnostics to listen a little more closely to what he says next time he decides to ascend to the pulpit.

Rob Patterson
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