For most artists, the concept album is the one half your career has led up to. For Neil Young, it’s the thing he throws together in a few raucous-seeming weeks every three or four years.
Greendale, Young’s puzzling 2003 rock opera, set something of a template for the rest of his theme albums: They’re generally skeletal, three-chord rock full of communal choruses and prickly political concerns. What varies album to album is Young’s choice of collaborator(s) and hyper-specific lyrical theme du jour. On Living With War, he took hold of a 100-voice choir and all of the urgency afforded by the Iraq war; 2009’s spottier Fork In The Road had longtime pedal-steel collaborator Ben Keith and an abiding obsession with alternative energy cars.
The Monsanto Years is Neil Young’s 36th solo studio album—a figure that says plenty about the artist’s impulsive studio tendencies—and it’s lyrically even more esoteric than Fork. With twang-and-fuzz accompaniment from Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah (as well as Lukas Nelson’s band Promise Of The Real), Young has written a set of rock songs railing against agribusiness Monsanto and perceived corruptions in the agriculture world more broadly. The album further dims the line between “protest rocker” and “grumpy old man.” Like Monsanto’s ancestral predecessors, the result is underproduced, underwritten, and not likely to take up more than a few months (if not weeks or days) of Young’s promotional energies before he moves to the next thing.
There are some highlights. “A New Day For Love” opens with a crunchy, hopeful stomper; it doesn’t delve much into the LP’s thematic obscurities. Ditto for the taut, environmentally charged “If I Don’t Know.” It’s nice to hear Young turn up the amps after a pair of quiet releases in 2014. But it’s strange to hear the man who wrote “Ohio” and helped pioneer the protest genre reduced to couplets like “I want a cup of coffee but I don’t want a GMO / I like to start my day off without helping Monsanto.” Inspired by Starbucks’ apparent involvement in a Monsanto lawsuit against Vermont, “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” is less a song than a rant set to verse. The cartoonish whistling IV-V-I progression and grumblings about “fascist politicians” don’t help the tossed-off impression it gives.
Historically, Neil Young hasn’t shied away from weird—his troubled ’80s output yielded fascinating forays into robot-pop (Trans), rockabilly (Everybody’s Rockin’), and even big-band elements (This Note’s For You). Old Ways, from the same era, foreshadowed this current fixation on farm issues. But between the country-rocker-on-autopilot “Workin’ Man” (how has Neil Young not used this song title yet?) and rambly “People Want To Hear About Love,” the Monsanto tracks sound disconcertingly familiar. The latter track is a real mouthful; Young gets in potshots at Citizens United, Chevron, and pesticides being linked to autism.
Those are all topics of social and political concern, but that’s the trouble with The Monsanto Years—it’s a collection of songs that winds up sounding like it could have been a series of blog posts or even tweets. How long until the next one?