Even by his own high standards, 2012 has been a busy year for Neil Young. Creating his third documentary collaboration with filmmaker Jonathan Demme, the veteran songwriter has also found the time to write his memoirs and release two albums with long-term backing band Crazy Horse. The first album, Americana, a collection of American standards covered in The Horse’s inimitable style, was something of a tease from the ever contrary Young, constricting the band’s ragged, expansive sound behind the likes of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round The Mountain’ and never really taking off as they have done so heroically in the past.
Thankfully, Psychedelic Pill counters Americana’s disappointments and delivers in exactly the way you’d expect an album from Neil Young and Crazy Horse to do. Epic is best way to introduce it: in every sense of the word – it’s almost 80 minutes of music, with the opening track ‘Driftin’ Back’ clocking in at almost half an hour, one track featuring twice in two different mixes, and two others straying over the quarter hour mark. Sonically, it’s rough around the edges, with most tracks sounding like they’ve been taped live and possibly even on the first take. For a lot of Young fans this is exactly what they want from an album of him and The Horse, and it’s fair to say that anyone who has celebrated this side of the Canadian songwriter will cherish Psychedelic Pill.
Anyone who’s more inclined towards the acoustic side of Young might struggle with the more expansive side of his personality here, as well as the lack of any desire to edit or finesse the material. That ridiculous opener will be the main dividing line for fans – opening with a gentle acoustic strum and Young’s plaintive vocals, ‘Driftin’ Back’ soon turns towards a heavier edge as the Crazy Horse grunge machine chugs into life a minute or so in. From there on, the song becomes one long, long drift through some typical solos and freeform lyrics ripped almost directly from his recent autobiography. At one point, 20 minutes in, Young starts bemoaning the quality of MP3s, just as he does at regular intervals in his memoirs Waging Heavy Peace; anyone who’s read the book will start praying that the next verse doesn’t cover his train sets or his LincVolt electric car.
Even for an ardent Young fan, it’s pretty heavy going, especially as aside from Young’s startling guitar lines the rest of the track is pretty rudimentary. Editing is not a word that exists in the Crazy Horse vocabulary, but ‘Driftin’ Back’ is a great example of a track that could do with a trim.
Thankfully, the rest of Psychedelic Pill delivers in a more direct way, whilst still being informed by the journey through the past that writing the book has obviously taken Young on. The title track appears in two mixes, the first of which is phased into oblivion, but the track underneath that also closes the LP in more straightforward terms could be a cousin of Young’s classic ‘Cinnamon Girl’, telling the story of a protagonist making “his world stand still” as The Horse crash through a stomping, bright riff. ‘Born In Ontario’ and ‘Twisted Road’ are two other straight trips down memory lane, the first a galloping paean to Young’s geographical roots and the second full of nods to his musical influences, with the singer proclaiming: “First time I heard ‘Like A Rolling Stone/I felt that magic and took it home/Gave it a twist and made it mine/But nothing was as good as the very first time.”
What really sets Psychedelic Pill out as some of Young’s strongest work in a while though are those other epic tracks, which deliver that expansive, explorative sound with some deeper voyages into the singer’s thoughts. ‘Ramada Inn’ is a truly beautiful song, with Young singing with true feeling and honesty about his relationship with wife Pegi over the years. Similar in sound to ‘I’m The Ocean’ from 1995’s Pearl Jam collaboration Mirror Ball, there’s a reflective quality to the backing and Young’s own solos that matches the lyrics, creating something truly special.
It’s matched by the album’s other highlight, ‘Walk Like A Giant’, a stomp through classic Crazy Horse territory that finds Young reflecting on how life has changed from the days when he used to stride confidently. "I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I float like a leaf on the stream," he sighs, suggesting that he and his friends were going to change the world before it all fell apart. There’s a real feeling of regret flowing below the whistles and ear-splitting guitar runs, a depth to the track that you can feel in the band’s playing, regardless of whether you’re only hearing five per cent of it on an MP3 or not. It’s exactly what you want Neil Young to be playing as a 66-year-old, looking back over his life and career.
Just those two tracks would’ve made Psychedelic Pill an essential purchase in the latter-day Neil Young catalogue, but it’s typical of him that you get a whole lot more on top of that - even if you didn’t exactly want it in the first place. But that's what you’d expect from a Neil Young & Crazy Horse album – full of smudges and indulgences, but also bursting with passion, soul and blissful music. As Young continues to switch between the passions of his life – the books, trains, electric cars and that bloody music software that’ll let us hear the other 95 per cent - you hope he can find the time to make more albums like this.
8Aaron Lavery's Score