When an old man decides to take a look at his own life, it is probably a good idea to listen. After all, we may well be a lot like he is. Besides, there is always that old saw about unexamined lives. Neil Young, in his 60s, appears to be in the mood not only to examine, but to tell us about it as well. He’s written a memoir (Waging Heavy Peace), and this year he worked once again with Crazy Horse after nine years apart. Together, they’ve put out an album of covers of the kinds of songs he remembers first learning about back in school (Americana). And now at the end of the month, he and the band will be releasing a new studio album that looks back on his life and career musically. The two-disc studio album, Psychedelic Pill is in a real sense a musical companion to Waging Heavy Peace.
With a menu of nine tunes—ranging in length from just over three minutes to just under a half hour—Psychedelic Pill is vintage Young with a twist or two here, an innovation there. The guitar work is classic. The lyrics are powerfully personal. A song like “Ramada Inn” is a hymn to mature love, the love of a couple in their 60s, the kind of love and commitment the teens and the 20-somethings can only look forward to. A song like “For the Love of Man,” which is dedicated to his son Ben, who was born with cerebral palsy, is eloquent in its sincerity and simplicity.
“Twisted Road” is an homage of sorts to his musical influences. There are nods to Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Roy (I would imagine Orbison), and even Bob Seger (with that old time music soothing the soul). “She’s Always Dancing” looks at beauty as something eternal. She’s a kind of “Cowgirl in the Sand” dancing her way to immortality. “Walk Like a Giant”—you can hear it on YouTube—looks back to that time of life when we tried to change the world, to save it and make it better. In a WNYC Soundcheck interview, journalist David Carr describes the band in concert performance stomping around the stage like the giants of the title at the song’s pounding climax. It ought to seem tacky, but the audience, Carr tells us, ate it up. These are classics in the making.
“Driftin’ Back,” which opens the album at 27 minutes and 37 seconds, will no doubt seem to some listeners something of a self indulgence on Young’s part. On the other hand, given the artist’s famed cantankerousness, I’m sure he couldn’t care less. Besides, one audience’s self indulgence is another audience’s genius. The song itself is an indictment on the failures of the ’60s—the commercialization of art, corporatization, and religious charlatans. It is an angry song pointing to the giants’ failure to change the world. It is the kind of song that demands epic length, and without question it gets it.
“Born in Ontario” has a roots vibe that seems out of sync with the rest of the album. Perhaps the happy feeling of the lyrics and the music contrast too sharply with the more sober material. There are two versions of the album’s title song, the first more psychedelic sounding than the remix which closes the album.
The old man, it turns out, is taking that look at his life, and damned if I don’t want to be a lot like he is.