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Music Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

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Psychedelic Pill – Neil Young’s second album since reuniting with Crazy Horse earlier this year – is his most eagerly anticipated new recording in years, if not decades. The reasons for this are, of course, obvious. It’s a new recording of original material from Neil Young & Crazy Horse already.

The good news is that this is also his best album – Crazy Horse or otherwise – in a good long while.

One of the things that makes Neil Young, well, “Neil Young,” is the way that he has steadfastly – some would say stubbornly – followed his artistic muse over the course of his long and legendary career. But it has also just as often as not, alienated bandmates (including those in Crazy Horse); frustrated fans; and at one point, even caused his own label to sue him for failing to make “Neil Young” records.

The thing is, he somehow always manages to find his way back, even following these long periods of what at least appears to be artistic flux. He last did it with Freedom in 1989, a “comeback” record made following nearly 10 years of often confusing, confounding genre experimentation.

At the time it was released, Freedom shocked a lot of people. This was the unexpected, but completely natural and organic sounding followup to 1979’s classic Rust Never Sleeps, that he probably could have made at any point during those so-called years lost in the wilderness in the ’80s. But for whatever reasons (and who knows what goes on in Neil Young’s brain?), he chose not to.

Freedom was followed in short order by a brilliant creative run in the early to mid-’90s, that produced a series of albums (Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon and Sleeps With Angels chief among them), which rivaled (and some would say even surpassed) his best work in the ’70s.

On an initial couple of listens, Psychedelic Pill feels like exactly this type of album.

Not that the last several years haven’t produced some admirable work, because they have. But near-great albums like Le Noise have just as often been book-ended by lesser records like Fork In The Road, or even this year’s earlier Americana collection of folk standards given the cranked-up Crazy Horse treatment. Nothing particularly God-awful terrible there or anything. Just nothing all that memorable in the long run.

But because Neil Young – at least when he is hitting on all four cylinders, and despite all of his hits and misses over the years – has established such a high artistic standard, his fans just as often place equally lofty demands on the man. Taken on that level, Psychedelic Pill delivers the goods and then some.

Of the eight songs on this two-disc collection (nine if you count the alternate mix of the title track), three of them exceed the 15-minute mark, and one of them, the opening “Driftin’ Back,” clocks in at nearly half an hour. A lot of this material will also sound suspiciously familiar to long time fans. So, if the thunderous power chords that open “Psychedelic Pill” remind you more than a little of “The Loner,” just remember that as the man himself once said, “it’s all the same song.”

But what a damn song!

As one might expect, the lengthier songs on this album (“Walk Like A Giant,” “Ramada Inn” and especially “Driftin’ Back”), serve mainly as launchpads for the sort of psychedelic guitar explorations that will delight longtime Neil Young fans. These songs will take them right back to albums like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Zuma and Ragged Glory.

But where the music mirrors the grungey, psychedelic feel of those classics, it does not sound the least bit dated. As much as Psychedelic Pill is every bit the classic Neil Young & Crazy Horse album you’d expect, it also has a very modern feel.

On the opening “Driftin’ Back,” the lyrics are as abstract as the music is hypnotic. When Neil Young references things like “writing in my book, locking all the thoughts out,” or how “I used to dig Picasso, then the big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper,” it’s almost as though you were reading scribblings from his diary. The closest comparison lyrically, would be the darker, more personal corners of the “Ditch Trilogy” albums like On The Beach and Tonight’s The Night.

Neil also has some choice words for modern recording technology here (“Don’t want my MP3, when you hear my song now, you only get five per cent”). Lines like these read more like random thoughts than song lyrics – like peaking into someone’s private journal. Neil Young has rarely been this forthright in his songwriting. The oddest thing is that he seems so relaxed and comfortable with it.

This is taken to a borderline ridiculous extreme on “Walk Like A Giant,” where Neil muses about how “he used to walk like a giant on the land” and how “me and some of my friends were gonna’ save the world” before the “weather changed and it fell apart.” As weighty, and as much as this might sound like the confessions of an aging rock legend staring down at the ticking clock of his own mortality, consider that this takes place in between glorious washes of feedback and, of all things, almost cavalier sounding whistling sounds.

The nostalgia trip continues, but lightens up considerably on the much shorter “Twisted Road.” In another time, this would have been a sure-fire hit single. “Twisted Road” has got a hook that is every bit as big as “Cinnamon Girl” or “Mr. Soul.” As is, the song serves as this album’s trademark catchy, slightly dirty rocker – think of it as Psychedelic Pill’s “Fuckin’ Up.”

In the full band arrangement here, fleshed out considerably by Crazy Horse from the acoustic version being played on the current tour, the song’s nostalgic look back to the days of Dylan and the Dead is certain to resonate with the boomer contingent of Neil’s fan base. Either way, it’s just an all-around great song.

Every 10 years or so, Neil Young takes a break from chasing the muse every which way it leads, to make that one great, completely effortless sounding album he seems to be able to make at will.

For right now, Psychedelic Pill is that record. Papa’s got a Rolling Stone.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • Omar

    Great write up, Glen.

  • http://thrasherswheat.org thrasher

    Nice review Glen.
    Looking forward to our copy’s arrival.
    Driftin Back sounds like a great jam.

    Walking Like A Giant is totally epic in concert. Make sure to catch the tour.
    thanks!

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I’m looking forward to seeing the tour here in Seattle Nov. 10, and based on the YouTube clips I’ve seen, “Walk Like A Giant” sounds epic indeed. But “Driftin’ Back” is the most epic thing on this record…love to see Crazy Horse knock that one out live. Thanx Thrasher.

    -Glen

  • Greg Barbrick

    For the first time since the mid-’90s I am actually excited about a new Neil record.

    I agree that it seems like he could make a “Neil Young” record at will, but chooses to drift off into Shocking Pinks territory (or wherever) for reasons beyond my comprehension.

    Who knows what The Loner knows, but I am very much looking forward to hearing this one.