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'The Monsanto Years' review: Neil Young goes against the modified grain

Neil Young's new album, "The Monsanto Years."

Neil Young's new album, "The Monsanto Years." Credit: Reprise Records

Neil Young knows how to write great protest songs.

After all, he wrote "Ohio" within days of the killing of protesters at Kent State University in 1970 and he managed to put celebrity endorsements in the spotlight with "This Note's for You" in 1988.

With his new album "The Monsanto Years" (Reprise), Young -- with help from Willie Nelson's sons, Lukas and Micah, from Promise of the Real -- takes on the agricultural biotech company Monsanto and its use of genetically modified seeds for growing heartier crops. Young's lyrics serve up a fascinating viewpoint about genetically modified food, income inequality and the power of corporations. But the bluntness of his lyrics also often fail to serve the song.

"They cast their votes and no one gets excited," Young sings in "Big Box." "Because they are Citizens United . . . Democracy crushed."

Now, regardless of your politics, that's not going to fly as a great sing-along, especially when he sneers "Walmart" repeatedly and offers the human characteristics of corporations dripping in sarcasm.

It's not like Young doesn't know what to do. In "People Want to Hear About Love," he does a call-and-response with the title of the song and a variety of his complaints -- ranging from "Don't talk about the corporations hijacking all your rights" to "Don't say pesticides are causing autistic children" -- over the most Crazy Horse-like musical backdrop on the album. It's the most successful protest song on "The Monsanto Years" because it has the strongest musical groove.

"A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop" is another solid song, though once it moves from the playful whistling to a chorus of "Monsanto, let our farmers grow what they want to grow" it starts to crumble.

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Young's problems in "The Monsanto Years" aren't political ones, surprisingly, they are musical ones.


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