Neil Young’s new album with The Promise of the Real, 2015’s The Monsanto Years, is a strange bird for our era. It’s a good old fashioned protest album from start to finish. That’s rare enough, but the fact that it is one of Neil’s best albums ever makes it a standout for 2015 and perhaps controversial for more than his attacks on pesticides, Monsanto, Starbucks, and Wal-Mart.
Neil Takes on the Power
One of the challenges for the success of The Monsanto Years may be the fact that it is a proper protest album, an undertaking out of its time. There really aren’t that many Neil-type protest albums on the go right now. He was one of the best at it back in the day; you know, challenging Nixon and big oil in the 70s. So how does it sound now? With today’s issues? Well, brilliant—actually.
Songs like “Big Box,” “Workin’ Man,” and “Monsanto Years” don’t pull punches. With choruses like “Too big to fail/Too rich for jail” from “Big Box,” it’s doubtful Wal-Mart will have a Neil and The Promise of the Real display in their electronics acreage. They didn’t have one for Green Day’s American Idiot either, the last protest album of this scale. And “Big Box” is about the Wal-Mart effect, the death of the mom-and-pop store and downtowns in general. This isn’t an album to underestimate; Neil knows our time.
Love Songs and Whistlers?
Most of The Monsanto Years is blunt, right on target, protest music. It’s hard going for a listener who wants a whistler and it’s clear Neil is aware of this. “People Want to Hear About Love” is an admission that this album may be more abrasive than commercial. There are no love songs, though there is a great whistler and it’s one of the best protest tunes he has written as well.
“A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” has a interesting history already. Vermont, the first state to do so in the USA, a bastion of free speech in a world against it, declared that GMO products had to be labelled and Starbucks and Monsanto and others sued the state. Neil doesn’t buy Starbucks anymore. And he writes some pretty whistle-worthy tunes about it as well.