Scores of musicians have written songs about the birds and the bees.
Neil Young may be the first to feature them in an actual recording.
On his immersive new album, Earth, cackling geese, buzzing bees and scores of other species act as sidemen to Young’s crying guitar and keening voice. Nature invades the recording the same way it does the man-made world: as a sobering, and redeeming, reminder of its superior power and scope.
The racket made here by every manner of insect and mammal literalizes the album’s focus: nature. Young fashioned Earth as another environmental protest album, in the style of his 2015 release The Monsanto Years. Again, it takes aim at genetically modified food products and the corporations that promote them. Unfortunately, the message on Monsanto sunk under the weight of un-singable lyrics and leaden music. Earth counters that with focus and fire.
Like its predecessor, the new set pairs Young with Promise of the Real, a young rock band that features two of Willie Nelson’s sons, guitarists Lukas and Micah. The core of Earth comes from performances during the band’s 2015 tour with Young, later enhanced by howling coyotes and belching frogs, as well as a human choir. Young segued the songs into a continuous 98-minute run, using the nature sounds as both connective tissue between the tracks and as a kind of expert witness. In many places, Young squeezed the squawks and yelps into the center of the songs, creating surprisingly fine hooks.
Three songs from Monsanto turn up here, in versions far angrier, and sharper than the studio takes. The rest of the set cherry-picks environmental songs from throughout Young’s catalogue, including lesser-known works, like the lovely ballad “Western Dreams” and the chunky “Hippie Dream,” along with better known pieces like “Human Highway” and the stone-cold classic “After The Gold Rush.”
The band has a dynamic that’s distinct from the one Young has with his long-running allies, Crazy Horse. Promise has the advantage of a second lead guitar, contrasting Young’s wild screeches with sleeker lines. Together, they hit a peak in a 28-minute run at one of the star’s most energetic songs from the ’90s “Love & Only Love.” Like all the tracks here, it ends with brays, snorts and grunts, letting nature have the final say.