Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill
Career longevity in the music business is a tricky and often elusive feat. It’s difficult to innovate and retain cultural relevance over an extended period of time as many musicians are stymied by fans who only want bands to sound exactly as they did when they first encountered their music. Neil Young, one of the 20th century’s most prolific and beloved rockers, has managed to sustain a diverse career that has included forays into folk, hard rock, rockabilly, country and even a stint on MTV’s Unplugged in the 1990s. Young’s latest effort, Psychedelic Pill, his 35th studio album and first new music with Crazy Horse in more than 15 years, is a complex and lengthy romp that refashions Young at his 1970s rocking best for a new era. Somehow Psychedelic Pill manages to retain all the nostalgic appeal of classic rock without sounding antiquated or irrelevant. The album is also well worth a listen for the guitar solos alone, which are ambitious and impressive – a rock lover’s dream.
At twenty-seven minutes long, “Driftin’ Back,” the opening track on the album, is an epic song that would not seem out of place on Decade amongst Young’s best work from the 1960s and 1970s. His signature nasal drawl sounds as crisp and clear as it did in his youth; Young’s voice belies decades of life on the road and the trials of aging. The extended instrumentals are a showcase for Crazy Horse’s considerable skill and exhibit that elusive magic quality that stems from more than four decades of collaboration. Despite the song’s length, it’s extremely easy to get lost in the intricate guitar stylings, basslines and drum beats; “Driftin’ Back” has an almost trance-like effect on the listener. Had someone played us this track and said it was an unreleased gem from the 1970s we wouldn’t have doubted it for second. Only the lyrics, in which Young gripes about tech companies and mp3s and threatens to get a “hip hop haircut,” reveal the song’s 21st century origins. This tune is meandering in the best possible way – the exuberant imperfections of the instrumentals harken back to jam bands in their heyday.
“Driftin’ Back” is far from the only contemplative, brooding song on the album; Psychedelic Pill in its entirety is a platform for Young to ruminate on his rather lengthy career and the ordeals of aging. On “Twisted Road,” a country-rock tune, Young reminisces about the first time he heard Bob Dylan – “I felt that magic and took it home” – and listening to the Grateful Dead on the radio – “that old time music used to soothe my soul” – and includes the rather meta reference to “a new song with familiar chords,” which perfectly captures the essence of Psychedelic Pill. The closing song on the album, “Walk Like a Giant,” is a melancholic reflection on the failure of the 1960s generation to affect authentic and enduring social change, with Young disdainful of “how close we came” to revolution. This is easily the most inventive and interesting song on the album, and at a lengthy sixteen minutes is almost as elaborate as “Driftin’ Back.” While Young may be getting grumpy as he gets on in years, his anger, energy and considerable electric guitar chops prove that there’s still a place for him in the contemporary music scene.
Although Psychedelic Pill may not sound as fresh and new as some of Young’s recent solo efforts – Le Noise from 2010 immediately comes to mind – somehow its nostalgic references to an earlier era reveal what was and is best about Young and Crazy Horse rather than sounding like a poor approximation of the band in its prime. The album instantly transported us back to the excitement we felt when we first listened to Young classics like “The Needle and the Damage Done,” “Helpless” and “Like a Hurricane,” which is a testament to Young’s remarkable ability to retain the power and intensity of his youth after more than a half century making music. The man who famously sang “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” has done neither, an extremely unusual accomplishment for a musician who emerged in the 1960s.