‘The Monsanto Years’ and ‘Before This World’ Reviews: Checking In With James Taylor and Neil Young

It’s not a bad time to be an old man in the music industry. Paul McCartney has been spending time with Kanye and Rihanna; Bob Dylan, moonlighting as a nightclub crooner on his new album, and Tom Waits were featured in the final nights of the Late Show With David Letterman; the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy has been positively received by critics; Billy Joel is continuing his run as the first-ever music franchise at Madison Square Garden; Elvis Costello is hopping around England and the U.S. this summer and Sting and Paul Simon just finished their successful two year world tour in April.

The privilege of this age is that no one is seeking to tear you down anymore. More often than not, respect is paid to musicians who are still producing and performing material past the age of sixty. They can try and fail more easily and are rarely accused of selling out. Even if their later works do not completely hold up next to their classic hits, retrospectives and eulogies will be kind to the twilight portions of their career.

This is all to say that James Taylor and Neil Young’s latest works do not completely hold up, but do nothing to damage their respective legacies. They are fascinating and frustrating portraits of two old artists wrestling with the same question: what more do I have to say?

In Young’s case, quite a lot. One of the best protest songwriters of his generation, Young has never avoided the issues of his time. Living With War, his righteously indignant 2006 album, features the song “Let’s Impeach the President” and 2009’s Fork In The Road promotes Young’s interest in alternative automotive technology.

The release of The Monsanto Years (out June 30th) marks Young’s 36th studio album, which is both an impressive and exhaustive feat. Accompanied by the country-rock band Promise of the Real, Young goes after the titular agribusiness, Walmart and Starbucks with the vigor of a well-oiled curmudgeon. “The farmer knows he’s got to grow what he can sell, Monsanto, Monsanto / So he signs a deal for GMOs that makes life hell with Monsanto, Monsanto,” he sings on the title track, with his scratchy, iconic voice still in fighting spirit. Those are maybe the most subtle lyrics on the entire album as Young paints broad strokes across each underproduced song. “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop” employs a lazy, whistled refrain, while “Rules of Change” sounds like an extended jam session gone awry.

While Young’s passion is as unguarded as it’s ever been, there’s no polish to his outrage. “People Want to Hear About Love” links autism with pesticides while criticizing the Citizens United and Chevron, but fails to engage rhythmically. It sounds like Young is just checking off an angry to-do list. There’s a rushed quality to the entire album, which was recorded from January to February 2015. It plays like an urgent, frustrated thesis that is still in the first-draft stage, or a passionate op-ed, which, come to think of it, may have been a more effective use of Young’s energy.

As Young has continued to attack the world head on, James Taylor managed to retreat from it. Taylor has kept busy in the twenty-first century, performing across the world and releasing a polite covers album in 2008. Before This World, released on Tuesday, is his first original work since 2002’s October Road. Taylor’s decision to return to new material has led, if Billboard is correct, to his first ever No. 1 album.

While his return to songwriting should be greeted with enthusiasm, a thirteen year absence has given way to some rust. The opening track, “Today, Today, Today,” is a safe reminder of his trademark clarity, while “Angels of Fenway” (go Red Sox!) reflects on his grandmother’s devotion to a heartbreaking team with pandering, yet delicate charm. “Montana” seems to mimic the melody of “Sweet Baby James,” but offers a sense of longing that seems appropriate after an extended absence from songwriting.

His great talent has always been tailoring music and lyrics to his uniquely aloof voice. There’s an anxious, provisional quality to his singing that always sounds, in his best works, concerned yet reassuring. His voice adds complexities to songs like “Fire and Rain” or “Her Town Too” that might not be evident when performed by other artists. Before This World is a reminder of his savvy technique, with minimal arrangements throughout.

Taylor and Young’s careers thrived in the early 1970’s but despite mutual respect and collaboration, they were thematically at odds with one another. Taylor was content on staking claim as the quiet, sensitive confessional; more accessible — if less poetic — than some of his contemporaries. Young meanwhile found success merging the personal with the political, and his catalogue features songs that are as wistful as they are assertive.

They also each lacked qualities that the other skillfully possessed. If Taylor never reflected the decade as effectively as Young, he managed to disarm audiences with a sublime eloquence and simplicity. James Taylor would have never written a song as haunting as “Ohio,” but Neil Young never quite knew how to write a reflective ballad like “Carolina in My Mind.” The 1980’s saw both artists struggle to stay relevant as folk-rock began to diminish from the culture. They survived and reemerged antithetically; Young widened his focus and kept getting louder while Taylor grew even more meditative and found new ways to stay quiet.

That simple truth remains in their newest works.

Both artists still understand how to earnestly reflect reality, but perhaps they could still learn a thing or two from one another. For all of its pleasant virtues, much of Before This World feels too introspective, and quickly becomes monotonous. Only towards the end, when the album wanders into a traditional Celtic folk style, do the melodies begin to feel engaging. One of the best songs, “Far Afghanistan,” is a cinematic look at a soldier’s plight and features a dark, pointed verse that reminds us of Taylor’s lyrical gifts:

They tell you a tradition in the hills of Kandahar 

They say young boys are taken to the wilderness out there 

Taken to the mountain alone and in the night 

If he makes it home alive they teach him how to fight

Neil Young doesn’t have time for such sober poetry on The Monsanto Years. He’s too busy raging against the machine to infuse his purpose with a deeper spirit. In doing so, he ignores one of his greatest lessons: even Richard Nixon has got soul.

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