Neil Young has been sounding the alarm about environmental issues for more than four decades. He warned us to “look at Mother Nature on the run” in “After the Gold Rush,” way back in 1970, a few months after the first Earth Day. He’s stayed on message through records like 2003’s Greendale, on which he pleaded, “We got to save Mother Earth,” and 2009’s Fork in the Road, an ad for his alternative-power LincVolt car. But he’s rarely driven his point home as vehemently as on The Monsanto Years, a jeremiad against the agrochemical behemoth of the title and what he sees as American farming’s Frankenstein future. “From the fields of Nebraska/To the banks of the Ohio/Farmers won’t be free to grow/What they want to grow,” Young sings at one point. If the imagery evokes Woody Guthrie, the righteous rock & roll fire is pure Neil.
This album’s origins are appropriately organic. Last year at Farm Aid, Young jammed with Willie Nelson’s sons, guitarist Micah and singer-guitarist Lukas, who fronts the rootsy band Promise of the Real. It went well enough that soon Young invited them out to California to bash out this set of protest folk coated in Crazy Horse-style grunge. It’s pretty loose, even by Young’s rough-and-ready standards; the guitars on “Rules of Change” shudder into gear like a combine harvester that hasn’t had a tuneup since CSNY’s first tour, and the album’s softer moments are especially craggy and brittle.
Anything more polished would defy the album’s intentions. This is garage-to-table grousing for a genetically engineered world, a landscape where you’re supposed to see some weeds. Young’s lyrics often sound like advocacy journalism or posts to a Daily Kos comments thread: “When the people of Vermont/Voted to label food with GMOs/So that they could find out what was in/What the farmer grows/Monsanto and Starbucks, through the Grocery/Manufacturers Alliance/They sued the state of Vermont/To overturn the people’s will,” he proclaims on “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” a jaunty rant with a whistled refrain. On the dire rocker “Big Box,” Young sings about how the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling gave corporations the same rights as people. On “People Want to Hear About Love,” he takes shots at the music business for churning out shallow love songs rather than meaningful music about the supposed links between pesticides and autism.
These songs are powerfully felt, even if they probably won’t end up getting within sniffing distance of Young’s towering canon. At 69, his idealism is itself a natural wonder, and there’s a warmth and beauty to his performances even when he’s at his angriest. On the acoustic ballad “Wolf Moon,” Young’s voice creaks like a rusty hinge as he big-ups the land for withstanding “the thoughtless plundering.” It’s almost as if the Earth is an old buddy going through hard times, and he’s taking it out for a beer. That kind of honesty has always been at the heart of his music. It’s the warts-and-all passion that inspires us to hang with Young down any road he wanders.