Neil Young + Promise of the Real, "The Monsanto Years" (Warner Bros.)
Neil Young's voice, playing and passion are undimmed, but his lyrical talent is diminished in much of this new album, which — as the title "The Monsanto Years" suggests — is obsessed with what he perceives as the despoiling of America at the hands of corrupt corporations and complacent politicians.
The sound is distinctive Neil, little changed over 50 years, though the voice is a bit scratchier now. But he's replaced the symbolic approach — "flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun" from 1970's "After the Gold Rush," for example — with a more literal style. The complaints about Monsanto, Walmart and "big box" stores that are killing mom and pop shops too quickly devolve into sloganeering.
It's a pity that the words aren't more nuanced, because much of the music, recorded with the L.A. band Promise of the Real, is haunting. "Wolf Moon" — yes, he's still singing about the moon — is evocative and powerful to begin with, but weakens as it becomes overtly political. "Workin' Man" uses vignettes nicely to build context, and "Rules of Change" is driven by a simple, effective percussion that evokes Native American rhythms and the beauty of the plains.
The recurrent themes are plunder and greed. Young laments that people only want to hear about love, not the truth about the environmental calamity confronting them.
His position is heartfelt, and his anger so real you can taste it, but there is something discomfiting about Young positioning himself as an all-knowing seer, putting people down for wanting simpler, cheerier songs. It's easy to admire Young for taking a stand, for not taking the easy "greatest hits" route, but these songs would benefit from a subtler lyric approach.