It’s easy to imagine an ideal version of The Monsanto Years, one in which Neil Young’s yowling grassroots fury plays off Willie Nelson’s reassuring cool, the two Farm Aid vets finding a neat equilibrium between tuneful levity and righteous anger. Yet late-career albums from classic rockers rarely approach perfection, and so in this case we get something less balanced, with two lesser Nelsons (Willie’s youngest sons, Lukas and Micah) playing ranch-hand to a single-minded, profoundly self-indulgent Young. Continuing his populist campaign against corporate robber barons, he leads a series of sing-alongs intended to rouse tempers toward the titular agro-business giant, but while his anger and focus are admirable, the material doesn’t come anywhere close to matching his passion.
This is the Neil Young of Pono, This Note’s for You, and “Alabama”: earnest and passionate to a fault, his fundamentally good ideas complicated by the clumsiness of their execution. This principled fervor has always assured that the most direct Young songs are often the worst, and here everything is overt, the singer so assured of his message that he takes no steps to sugarcoat it, the lyrics slipping toward a uniform style of curmudgeonly, unstylized forthrightness. Of the nine songs here, only “Wolf Moon” and “If I Don’t Know” approach the delicate tenor of classic Young, and these qualities show up only fleetingly amid wan paeans to the timeless, fragile majesty of nature. Reminiscent of “Pocahontas,” “Cortez the Killer,” and “After the Goldrush,” these tracks serve as reminders that Young has at least been consistent, pursuing this kind of environmentally focused, romanticized melancholy since the beginning of his career.
From the toothless snarl of “Big Box” to the abject self-parody of the title track, though, the album’s louder songs exhibit strong feelings and little else, recorded in a messy faux-live style and stretching on to interminable lengths. With no one on hand to quell his worst impulses, Young has gone preachy to the extreme, creating music that’s morally precise, but sloppy in every other regard. The result is the album equivalent of a chain email sent from your parents, typed out in all caps. Such dispatches now seem to be the norm, and we appear to have reached the point where it might be best to leave all further recorded missives to the imagination, appreciating the parallels between Young’s classic material and today’s circumstances, rather than enduring another impulsive, ham-fisted reaction to them.