A jam session at Farm Aid led to the award-winning musician’s new concept album that follows the plight of the small American farmer.
LA HONDA, California — The latest album from a living rock legend puts musical pressure on Monsanto, the agribusiness giant accused of everything from corrupting global politics to causing cancer with its pesticides.
Neil Young’s latest release is “The Monsanto Years,” a collaboration with Promise of the Real, a band that includes Willie Nelson’s sons, Micah and Lukas. Although the official release date is June 30, music critics are already responding to the album, which can be previewed on NPR Music’s First Listen.
Critics of Monsanto claim that the corporation profited from unrest in Ukraine and Haiti, that its genetically modified crops may be unsafe for widespread use, and that its chemical products could cause cancer and long-term damage to the environment. Monsanto’s production of white phosphorous for the military can be linked to war crimes in Israel.
“‘The Monsanto Years’ specifically looks at the issue from the perspective of a farmer who resorts to growing Monsanto-manufactured crops, but thinks often of his mother and father and the untainted farming traditions they passed down,” Jon Blistein wrote for Rolling Stone in March.
Appropriately for an album concerned with modern agriculture, the collaboration originated in a meeting between Young and Willie Nelson’s offspring at the 2014 Farm Aid music festival. “Young jammed with Willie Nelson’s sons … 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,” wrote Rolling Stone reviewer Jon Dolan last week.
Young joins many other activists, artists and consumers worldwide concerned with the influence of Monsanto and the effects of the multinational corporation’s products on health, bringing a passion to the project that’s absent even in some of his other overtly political works.
“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,” Dolan wrote. “‘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.”
Many critics comment on the rough, unpolished sound of “The Monsanto Years,” which reflects on both its origins and the urgency Young feels about saving the earth. NPR’s Tom Moon summed up this sentiment:
“Here, we have a series of taut and stone-simple Neil Young songs that fit together under a catchall concept (about companies wielding extraordinary influence over many aspects of our quality of life), each powered by its own supply of righteous fury. …
This is not subtle, ‘Harvest Moon’ Neil, brooding at the piano. This is ornery, snarly Neil. Give him a megaphone and a transcript of these lyrics, put him on a street corner and watch what happens.”
In one track, “People Want To Hear About Love,” Young complains about the willingness of Americans to ignore important issues in favor of feel-good stories and songs. In another, “Big Box,” he sings, “The whole town’s asleep.”
When it comes to conversations about the risks of GMOs and corporate capitalism run amok, “The Monsanto Years” is designed to be blasted on a stereo until it wakes up the neighbors.
Watch the official music video for “A Rock Star Bucks A Coffee Shop” by Neil Young and Promise of the Real: