Neil Young – The Monsanto Years
There are fewer fish swimming in our oceans, and Neil Young ain't happy.
Neil Young is angry again, but this time his fury is well-placed. In the last year alone, his diatribes against a Carnegie Hall audience attempting to clap along to Ohio and his dismissal of the vinyl revival as nothing more than “a fashion statement” have done nothing to alter the widespread public perception which casts Neil Young as a grumpy old man. Thus, 47 years after his debut solo record, the prospect of another angry outing from Shakey is probably not one that’ll set pulses racing. On this occasion, however, the ever singular Young achieves something that, at least in recent years, he’s rarely been guilty of. The Monsanto Years is relevant.
Despite his revered position among the rock and roll greats, Young’s politics are the kind dismissed by much of mainstream media and political circles as “fringe” and “radical”. These neat, nominative deterministic terms are designed to keep them exactly there: on the periphery. Nonetheless, Young has beaten the drum long and hard, championing the rights of farmers and consumers, warning over the exploitation of the planet and the every-increasing speed with which the door between the corporate and political world revolves. The Monsanto Years is a crystallisation of some of Young’s hardest-fought political positions. And it comes at a time of minor global awakening on many of these fronts.
The Monsanto Company is one of the world’s leading agribusiness and biotech corporations and in the 1980s was one of the first to genetically modify a plant cell. It has lobbied long and hard for administrations around the world to loosen the rules around GMOs being used in food production. Its policies of suing farmers for alleged breach of patent on Monsanto-developed seeds has been blamed by farming groups for rafts of suicides from Brazil to India. And while Monsanto is the eponymous target at which Young spits his vitriol on this record, it's only part of the story. The Monsanto Years takes wider aim at the growing trend of corporate greed, destructive capitalism and legislative maladministration the world over.
Some of Young’s greatest bugbears are almost camouflaged by melody and deceptive song titling. Buried beneath the crunch of a Crazy Horse-esque guitar and gospel harmony on album opener New Day for Love is a call to arms, a similar message conveyed last year by Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything and by the Guardian in its Keep it in the Ground campaign: that we all need to take aversive action on climate change and for the rights of poor farmers now, before it is too late. Wolf Moon, a paean to nature and aptly the closest companion to Harvest era Young to be found here, bemoans the fact that fewer fish are swimming in our oceans, and that “old ice is floating on our seas”, over a gently bouncing bassline and a lilting mandolin.
On Big Box, accompanied by a scuzzy guitar riff, Young and his ever-present backing singers lament those corporations that are “too big to fail” and those behind them who are “too rich to jail”. At the time of writing, even the most dyed in the wool of financial press are expressing similar sentiment. “When Will Our Justice Department Jail the Criminal Bankers?” asks one writer on Forbes.
This is a concept album, of course, both thematically and musically. Similar melodies drift in and out of different tracks, framing the piece in an almost operatic manner. Some of the songs segue into others, with Young’s acrimony the constant player throughout. It recalls Bruce Springsteen’s underrated Wrecking Ball: the work of a veteran who has had enough and has hit on a way in which to package his frustration in a way that is tuneful, accessible and timely.
A month before its release, Young performed the song Rock Starbucks, a bluesy saunter that lashes out at Monsanto and Starbucks’ alleged efforts to sue the Vermont government for legislation that forces companies to label GMOs thusly, at a rally against Monsanto and GM foods, which attracted tens of thousands of people to various locations around the world. The week prior, the US Senate rejected a bill which would allow a controversial Trans-Pacific free trade agreement to pass through Congress without any amendments being made to it. The process, argued senior Democrats, was undemocratic and secretive. A key member of the US negotiating team was Islam Siddiqui, also a former senior executive at (yep, you guessed it) Monsanto. The door keeps spinning. The wider world – even certain factions of establishment – is waking up to some of his longest-held gripes and with the release of the excellent Monsanto Years, old Shakey may well have found a wider and more unlikely audience than he could ever have imagined.