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Environmental themes weave their way through multilayered muddy canvas

Neil Young_EarthNeil Young’s career has been like quicksilver, changing rapidly and moving in disparate directions. His new double-disc release, Earth (Reprise Records), continues this trend.

Merging studio-enhanced 2015 concert performances of songs from Young’s recent The Monsanto Years album with some classic and little-known tunes from his long musical canon, Earth produces a multilayered muddy canvas only Young could conjure up. The predominant studio effects include animal sounds that punctuate the songs at unexpected intervals. At first, the sounds of horses, crickets, crows, roosters, et al. are somewhat intrusive, but upon repeated listening, they blend into the background and form a sort of Greek chorus, spoken from the landscape of the earth.

The first cut, “Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)” — from 1990’s excellent Ragged Glory — begins with thunder, rain and crickets, segueing into a brisk harmonica and dirge-like pump organ. The sound and fury of the music leads the audience on a journey that is a rock ’n’ roll indictment on corporate greed and human complacency. Faced with a planet he views as under siege, Young throws the gauntlet down early. He laments his concerns to the earth itself: “How long can you give/And not receive/And feed this earth/ruled by greed.” The pump organ gives the song a funereal, churchlike atmosphere, but the effect is dour, not depressing. “Respect Mother Earth/And her healing ways/Don’t trade way/Our children’s day,” the lyrics plead.

“Seed Justice” is a blistering rock defense of farmers (something Young has been championing even before his involvement with the long-running socially conscious organization Farm Aid) and an attack on GMOs and their effect on the earth. “I won’t give up,” is Young’s promise here, coupled with the refrain “Show me the love.”

The environmental themes continue on “Big Box,” “Wolf Moon” and “People Want to Hear About Love.” The soggy chorus of the song “Monsanto Years” might be better served by watching Young’s 10-minute documentary film Seeding Fear, about a farmer who took on the agricultural giant Monsanto in court. Other corporate offenders such as Pfizer, Exxon, Dow Chemical and Walmart are singled out for contempt. The controversial Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court is referenced, as is the Black Lives Matter protests. At times, Young appears to be shooting fish in a barrel. The music is imposing and at times majestic, the targets are clear and in sight, but the message is sometimes muddled, obvious and overstated.

The best cuts come from some reworked classics such as “My Country Home” (listed as “Country Home” on Ragged Glory). “I’m thankful for my country home/It gives me peace of mind,” Young sings with irony about a way of life slowly disappearing. The theme of lost innocence fits within the context of a land plagued by environmental tragedy.

“Vampire Blues” (from 1974’s On the Beach), “Human Highway” (1978’s Comes a Time) and “Western Hero” (1994’s Sleeps With Angels) provide highlights and mesh well with the tone of the album. A stirring rendition (delivered without the high falsetto) of 1970’s “After the Gold Rush” is one of the best, most focused songs here. “We got Mother Nature on the run/In the 21st century” is a line that could have been written yesterday.

Backing band Promise of the Real is a worthy fit to Young’s style of edgy garage bluster and his trademark wall of feedback. Led by Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas (guitar, piano, vocals) and Micha (guitar, electric charango and vocals), the group also includes Corey McCormick on bass; and Tato Melger and Anthony Logerfo on percussion. (The band has a dynamic not unlike Young’s longtime backing band Crazy Horse.)

Young’s little-known song “Hippie Dream” (from 1986’s Landing on Water) is a standout ode to a long-gone (at the time) era. The song is laced with a heavy electric guitar and the sounds of horses braying and dogs barking. “It ain’t paradise/But it used to be,” Young croons, but he doesn’t give up. He’s still in the fight: “Just because it’s over for you/Don’t mean it’s over for me.”

“Love and Only Love” concludes the two-CD collection with a 28-minute jam that is vintage Young. Screaming guitars and a pounding rhythm section propel this number into a sensory realm reminiscent of some of his best work with Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Earth is Young’s wake-up call to a comatose nation more concerned with social media and TV than with what’s going on in a country that is being bought and sold in the shadows. The lyrics “Too big to fail/Too rich for jail,” from “Big Box,” could be a fervent chant from the recent Occupy Movement. The music (supported by the sounds of babbling brooks and barnyard animals) is the medium, and it more often than not works to deliver the messages with urgency and passion. Young is on a mission here to avert environmental catastrophe. It’s an angry and long-suffering quest.

— By Donald Gavron

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