Neil Young and Crazy Horse is a rock and roll institution. Together they have a way of transcending praise and criticism, and in a sense it even seems futile to analyze their work. Neil Young’s legendary anti-commercialist nature combines with the ramshackle nature of Crazy Horse to give their music a certain invulnerability; this is about them, nothing more and nothing less.
Conventional analysis is rendered weightless by the fact that they have no statement to make other than to simply assert their presence. Never has that felt more true than when Neil decided to saddle up the Horse last year for the first time since 2003 with Americana, the ragged sing-along collection of folk classics, and its follow-up: the sprawling double album release of Psychedelic Pill.
The album starts off with Neil on his own, sounding like an unplugged take on his latest solo work, 2010’s Le Noise. Somber acoustic strumming accompanies the withdrawn serenade of the opening chorus, and it is almost tangible when Crazy Horse fades in (with an interesting production trick) to join the ride.
There is no turning back from there, as the crew navigate their way through the remainder of the almost half-hour sonic landscape that is Driftin’ Back. On Ramada Inn, the second of three 16+ minute epics, Mr. Young uses a long love affair as a metaphor for the band itself, as the ups and downs level off over the decades to eventually become simply a fact of their existence.
As the album rides along from there, it slips the listener into long stretches of surreal trance, locked into the slow-motion gallop of deceptively simple chord progressions. These extended periods are punctuated by slashing guitar stabs and Neil’s sneering yelps of dissatisfaction of today’s culture of music consumerism. All the while though the record is blanketed in sustained, fuzz-saturated guitars that rise up at the perfect moments to engulf the songs with warm, reassuring bliss.
During the pensive journey you’ve found yourself on are a handful of shorter, more upbeat songs that serve as departures from the introspection like welcoming townships along the trail. The title track Psychedelic Pill picks up the pace with flanged-out guitars that phase back and forth like massive jet engines swirling overhead, and lyrics about party girls in shiny dresses looking for good times.
Later on Neil takes a moment to pay respect to his personal roots with the nostalgically celebratory Born in Ontario, and acknowledge the life-altering moment of his first exposure to Bob Dylan in Twisted Road. During these moments of lighthearted relief Neil confides that he writes music to “try to make sense of [his] inner rage”, to cleanse his soul of life’s tribulations and allow himself to find solace.
The album, and the band itself, rises to absolutely monolithic stature on the closing epic Walk Like a Giant. Young ruminates aggressively about his band’s youth, how he came so close to changing the world with social revolution, but decades of weathering the storm has left him feeling like “a leaf floating in a stream”. However he refuses to give up the hope of once again walking like a giant. During the instrumental breaks between verses the band, backed by fleeting horse whistles and tribal grunts, weaves it’s way through catharsis beneath the growing ominousness of rumbling black clouds of feedback.
The skies finally open up in the final minutes as the album devolves into an absolute maelstrom. Sheets of white noise crash down behind thunderous drumming as Neil rips one of the free-est of his trademark freeform guitar solos. amongst the storm the band eventually starts banging in unison with a lurching pulse like massive footsteps that slowly fade into the distance. Finally, a single quarter-note beat of the snare drum surfaces from the murk, reemerging like a lone candle amidst the chaos. The light summons the band back for one final, wordless chorus with which Neil, as he has always been able to, finds hope within the wreckage.
Thus, the album ends with Neil Young and Crazy Horse walking like the giants that they are, with the assurance that the world can still be saved. For as long as old Neil has The Horse at his side, the dreaming will never be over.
For its first 1 minute and 18 seconds, Psychedelic Pill is a Neil Young solo album. An acoustic guitar fumblingly plucked, some rustic shuffles and thumping sounds, and then that man-in-the-moon voice— “Hey now now, hey now now …”—ageless, weightless, half-absent but pregnant somehow with universal tristesse. He strums on blurrily, blurs on strummingly, in a lyrical haze. “I’m driftin’ back … Dreamin’ ‘bout the way things sound now … Write about them in my book …” Wait—what? Oh yeah. He does write about them in his book.
In his crazy, woolly, just-published memoir Waging Heavy Peace he writes about MP3s, deploring their crappiness and lossiness and their disgusting effect upon the mind of a young person, and pitches heavily for Puretone (now called Pono) his new hi-quality audio service with accompanying portable players. So this is cross-platform Neil, spacey-conversational, ramblingly boosting his tech-product and synergizing with his book-product. Other voices join him, old friendly voices, harmonizing: “I’m driftin’ baa-aack …” Still we float, pleasantly enough. Nice to be here in Neil Young chordal limbo. And then, at 1:18, with splashes and metallic hoots and a grinding deceleration in tempo, the band arrives. Oh Lord. It’s Crazy Horse.
There are pages and pages about these guys in Waging Heavy Peace: his Crazy Horse, his hobbyhorse, his hobgoblin crew of semi-competents. “You see, they are my window to the cosmic world. … Just getting there is the key thing, and Crazy Horse is my way of getting there.” Neil Young needs Crazy Horse. He needs the band’s rusty electricity, its slackness and its sag, and its lumpy-browed readiness to follow him deep into the guitar-caverns. He needs Ralph Molina on the drums, his tenuous compact with rhythm renewed unsteadily at every upbeat; he needs Billy Talbot’s bass going dunk-dunk-dunk; he needs the ambient friction of Ralph “Poncho” Sampedro, grating away semi-audibly on second guitar.
Part of it is sonic camaraderie, but there’s something else, too. Neil Young’s long marriage to Crazy Horse is his continuing living sermon on creativity—how you have to find the muse where she lives, not where you live. And if she selects for you a backing band that sounds like its members are all wearing gardening gloves, then boy, that backing band you must use. For the next 40 years.
And with commitment come rewards, profound endowments of energy and focus. You can hear it all the way through Psychedelic Pill. As is generally the case when Crazy Horse is involved, composition is not the thing: nothing flashy here, just laundry-rack song structures and determinedly half-assed lyrics for the doggerel playing of the band. “I might make it up to Detroit City/ Where people work hard and life is pretty,” he sings, slightly unforgivably, in a number called “Born In Ontario.” The title track even reprises—accidentally?— the horrible introductory chords of “Sign of Love” from 2010’s Le Noise.
But this is what inspiration looks like for Neil Young in 2012, and as soon he starts soloing it all makes sense. Loops and lurches, guttural conversations with his amp; noise-collapses; gorgeous isolate notes, dragged and spangled across the clumsy-beautiful phrasings of Crazy Horse; frazzled wisdom in a palace of reverb; he sounds amazing. The jams are long—10 minutes, 15 minutes… “Driftin’ Back” churns resplendently through 20 extraordinary minutes of improvisation. Crazy Horse keeps going, keep going, it’s what they do, gouging out pockets of possibility for their leader. Bump-bada-bump-bump-bump go the fills of Ralph Molina; Billy Talbot prods at the bassline, never quite convinced; but it works. As they follow Neil Young, so he follows his higher directive, adjusting the current of his guitar to its necessities.
“There seems to be no end to the information flowing through me,” he writes in Waging Heavy Peace, a book which uses the reader’s head like a cheap effects pedal. As Neil Young gets older, he gets wilder: This is the lesson. The brain degrades (Waging Heavy Peace is very direct about this), bits fall off, words fail him, his memory’s on the fritz, and we get closer and closer to a core of radiant noise. “Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “Little Gidding”, the last of his Four Quartets. He was being sarcastic. (“First, the cold friction of expiring sense …”) But Young’s old age is humming with genuine gifts, whether we’re traveling the kinks and whorls of his gray matter with Waging Heavy Peace or surrendering to the charred bass-tones of his guitar on this new album. Psychedelic Pill’s 17-minute “Ramada Inn”, which features some of his best playing ever—yes, ever—is about a long, long love, a long faithfulness, something splendid offered on the altar of Time. “And every morning comes the sun,” sing the veteran voices of Crazy Horse, “And they both rise into the day/ Holding on to what they’ve done …” The melody hangs there, and then “He loves her so,” answers Neil Young, singing alone. “He loves her so/ He loves her so/ He does what he has to.”
Rock legends aren’t supposed to crank out albums like emergency sausages during a picnic glut. They’re meant to be enigmatic and irregular, like Kate Bush, or Bob Dylan. But in fact, those two acts have released more albums in recent years than Coldplay and U2, who cautiously drop a record every few years like they’re trying to hold their talent in.
Neil Young, arguably our greatest functioning rock legend, is almost incontinent with talent. Psychedelic Pill is his second album this year which, along with his concurrently-released autobiography, suggests either that he’s on a major creative high or that he’s still in a 1960s-style record contract, under which bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones put out an album every few months.
Psychedelic Pill sees Neil with his rawest backing band, the superb Crazy Horse. Young’s bout of autobiography and his apparent decision to stop taking drugs all the time have also affected this record, which manages to be both loud and epic as well as contemplative and nostalgic, like an atom bomb that enjoys reminiscing.
Psychedelic Pill conforms to all Young’s rules of eccentricity. Opener Drifting Back is 27 minutes long; there are two only slightly different versions of the title track; and one song, the 16-minute Walk Like a Giant, starts with mass whistling.
Along the way there’s the country honk of Born in Ontario and the reflective Twisted Road (“Listening to the Dead on the radio / That old time music used to soothe my soul”). The graceful giant that is For the Love of Man has faint echoes of The First Cut Is the Deepest.
This isn’t a conventional album by the standards of today, but it’s fantastic. Crazy Horse are the perfect band for this sort of plaintive noise, carrying both Young’s simple melodies and his love of stretching out with equal ease.
And while everything here is good, it’s Driftin’ Back’s epic wistfulness, with its long but tense solos and extraordinary lyrics (“Don’t want my mp3”; “I’m gonna get me a hip hop haircut”) which will end up on the compilation collections of the future.
A great album and, as noted, his second this year. Everyone else, take note: release more records and you might get good at it.
“The way she dances makes my world stand still,” warbles Neil Young on Psychedelic Pill, the title track of his 35th studio album, a record that languorously noodles its way into the record books as his longest. If an hour and a half of Neil time sounds like a lot of guitar solos – well, yes, it is.
“Every move is like a psychedelic pill/ From a doctor I can’t find,” Young continues, as a riff grinds on. The three-minute song, though, isn’t this album’s keynote address; psychedelia is not its metier. It is just a parenthesis. Young will return to the theme of girls dancing later on She’s Always Dancin’, a song improved by the massed backing harmonies of Crazy Horse.
Really, Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill is less a tab of acid and more a madeleine. The past is so alive here you can taste it, and not just in the form of Crazy Horse, the heroically dishevelled band Young toys with when the urge takes him (they were on board for June’s warm-up exercise, Americana, an enjoyably gnarly surge through the kind of folk songs sung in primary schools).
Here, Twisted Road, a single of sorts, fetes Young’s heroes and contemporaries, Dylan, Roy Orbison and the Grateful Dead. Young has just published a volume of memoirs, a kind of companion piece to this album.
Their most symbiotic spell comes with the album’s 27-and-a-half-minute opening track, Driftin’ Back, a song that gives a flavour of Waging Heavy Peace, a volume as concerned with the iniquity of digital recording techniques as it with Young’s formative band, Buffalo Springfield. “Don’t like the way things sound now/ Write about it in my book,” Young sneers on Driftin’ Back, as his guitar locks horns with that of “Poncho” Sampedro.
In a nutshell, Young hates MP3s, he doesn’t like Picasso and he very much regrets the $35 he gave to the Maharishi. He wonders about his religious affiliation. More pertinently, Young is bitterly sorry that the 60s generation didn’t change the world. At 66, he is especially conscious of his own vincibility, since he suffered an aneurysm in 2005. These latter themes entwine magnificently on Walk Like a Giant, this lollygagging album’s truest path. At 16 and a half minutes, the sobriety of theme is balanced out with a little whistled melody, doo-wop backing vocals and Young’s clanging guitar.
In many ways, Young’s playing can sometimes be more grandiloquent than his vocals. Fans have a high tolerance for the titan of North Americana’s admixture of angry directness (“Let’s impeach the president for lying,” ran 2006’s Let’s Impeach the President and prosaic woolliness. Here, in addition, we find self-quotation (“Hey, now, now”), and kvetching. The guitars fill in the logic gaps with the kind of instinctual playing honed over 40 years, interlocking jams that have probably seen action before, but not so much you’d mind.
In word, deed and playing, Young defies easy cogency; he is a man who records and releases according to the lunar cycle. “Think I might be a pagan,” concludes Driftin’ Back. The man refuses to be parcelled up into neat bitstreams and that’s never been clearer than on this uneven but involving album. This, it seems, is his message: embrace the sprawl.
For Neil Young, the Sixties never ended. The music, memories and changes haunt his best songs and records like bittersweet perfume: vital, endlessly renewing inspirations that are also constant, enraging reminders of promises broken and ideals betrayed. In “Twisted Road,” one of eight new songs sprawled across this turbulent two-CD set, Young recalls, in a brilliantly mixed metaphor, the first time he heard Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”: “Poetry rolling offhis tongue/Like Hank Williams chewing bubble gum.” And Young tells you what he did with the impact. “I felt that magic and took it home/Gave it a twist and made it mine,” he sings over Crazy Horse’s rough-country swagger, as if the marvel of that time and his dreams are still close enough to touch.
So are the mess and his dismay. Psychedelic Pill is Young’s second album of 2012 with the Horse, his perfectly unpolished garage band of 43 years, and it has the roiling honesty and brutal exuberance of their best records together. This one opens with a special perversity: the thumping 27-minute fuzz-box trance of “Driftin’ Back.” Young, on lead guitar, spits feedback and throttles his whammy bar for long, mad stretches over rhythm guitarist Frank Sampedro’s trusty two-chord support and the rock-infantry march of bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina. Every six or so minutes, Young’s cracked yelp cuts through the tumult, spiking the flashback in the dreamy chorus with a contemporary disgust for tech-giant greed and the lousy sound of MP3s, whose shitty fidelity is “blockin’ out my anger/Blockin’ out my thoughts.”
There is, in fact, no mistaking Young’s mood. For most of its near-90 minutes, Psychedelic Pill is an infuriated trip: long tracks of barbed-guitar jamming and often surrealistic ire (“Gonna get me a hip-hop haircut,” he sneers, to no apparent sense, in “Driftin’ Back”) interrupted by short bursts of warming bliss. It is a weirdly compelling seesaw. “Psychedelic Pill” is a Day-Glo-angel twist on “Cinnamon Girl” coated, in the first of two versions here, with jet-engine-like phasing. But then comes “Ramada Inn,” 17 minutes of broiling guitars and stressed a ection in which Young examines a love that has somehow stayed alive long after the high times turned into routine and basic daily needs.
Even the sweet stuff is spiked. In the cheerful country funk of “Born in Ontario,” Young admits he writes songs “to make sense of my inner rage.” Yet he keeps finding hope in there. “Me and some of my friends/We were going to save the world. . . . But then the weather changed . . . and it breaks my heart,” Young confesses through black clouds of distortion in “Walk Like a Giant,” dogged by the mocking whistle of the Horse. A big closing chunk of the song’s 16 minutes is Young’s idea of a giant marching through ruin: thunderclap drums and hacking-cough chords. But the real end hints at rebirth: a cleansing coda of wordless acid-choir sunshine. Young may feel like the last hippie standing, but he still sounds like a guy who believes the dreaming is not done.