Neil Young And Crazy Horse: Psychedelic Pill
“The king of the left turn” is how Stephen Stills recently described Neil Young. Stills ought to know. As Young’s bandmate in Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and The Stills-Young Band, he’s been a party to many of Young’s various incarnations: folkie, hippie, rocker, superstar. But what makes Young compelling isn’t just the fact he evolves—it’s that his leaps happen sharply, erratically, and often perversely. In an industry that traditionally tries to cage and tame artists, Young has routinely chewed his own leg off to escape expectation—some notable examples being the futuristic Trans, the retro Everybody’s Rockin’, and the noisy Arc. “King” is a weighted word to use when discussing Young; this is the same guy who wrote the line, “The king is gone, but he’s not forgotten,” turning Johnny Rotten from punk villain to folk hero with the stroke of a pen and a pick.
But amid Young’s restless, reckless explorations, the legendary songwriter has always made a point to go home again. Albums like 1990’s Ragged Glory and 1996’s Broken Arrow are solid slabs of rootsy, jam-drenched guitar rock anchored firmly in Young’s sea of uncertainty. It’s no coincidence that those albums were made with Crazy Horse, the meat-and-potatoes backing band that’s been with him sporadically since 1969—the year Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere cemented Young’s most beloved identity, that of a cranky, cranked-amp outsider able to pierce hearts and eardrums with equal passion.
It’s also no coincidence that Young’s latest circling of the wagons, the wistful Psychedelic Pill, is his first full album with Crazy Horse since Broken Arrow. His shaggy memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, was just released, and in many ways Pill is a companion to the book’s nostalgic sprawl. Music being Young’s primary medium, however, the album is far better at focusing Young’s rambling tangle of ideas, impressions, recollections, and emotions—even throughout the staggering, 27-minute opening track, “Driftin’ Back.” With a title that telegraphs its intent and barely buffers the shock, the long, shambolic song makes no bones about its voyage through the past. It’s a sober trip, though. As Waging Heavy Peace reveals, Psychedelic Pill is ironically the first album Young has written since giving up booze and pot to reconvene Crazy Horse (just before recording Pill’s warm-up, Americana, a rollicking disc of folk standards).
That sobriety doesn’t keep “Driftin’ Back” from being a hallucinatory experience—at least sonically. As Young sharpens epic solos against the whetstone of Frank Sampedro’s rocky rhythm guitar, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina unpack creaking beats and a rumbling undertow. The overall sound is swampy, rich, and enormous; accordingly, Young takes the pulpit to promote one of his favorite topics, Pono, his long-in-development format for digital music. Much of his memoir also fixates on this topic, making both book and song feel like an extended sales pitch, much as Young’s 2009 album Fork In The Road lingered on the strengths of alternate-energy project Lincvolt. But Young is wise enough to sprinkle clunky lyrics like “When you hear my song now / You only get five percent / You used to get it all” with wingnut lines about Picasso and the process of writing Waging Heavy Peace. Sometimes Young’s left turns occur from album to album; other times they happen within the span of a couplet.
After the gorgeous yet cantankerous meandering of “Driftin’ Back,” Crazy Horse makes a sharper callback to its past. “Psychedelic Pill” is a stomping, overloaded garage tune reminiscent of “Cinnamon Girl,” one of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’s most potent and primal cuts. Smeared with a nauseating flange effect (removed, much to the song’s benefit, in an alternate mix at the end of the album), “Psychedelic Pill” manages to cram fluid chord changes and supple melody into its throbbing, pachyderm-like heaviness. Too often in latter-day Crazy Horse songs, the bare bones arrangements are scarcely enough to get the idea across; here there’s a deceptively deep level of craft and attention to detail. The mix of force and finesse is stunning. If this is the kind of power a cleaned-up Young can conjure, here’s hoping he stays off the sauce a little longer.
“Psychedelic Pill” isn’t the only song on the album that echoes Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Although Sampedro hadn’t yet joined the band when that album was recorded in ’69—original Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten was still three years away from a fatal overdose—he channels Whitten’s choppy funk and Steve Cropper-like licks on “Born In Ontario.” As short and sweet as Everything’s title track, “Ontario” is Pill’s most uplifting song: “This old world’s been good to me / So I try to give back, I try to be free,” sings Young, his voice reedy, sinewy, and stronger than its been in ages. Being a partial account of his Canadian heritage, the track is almost a sequel to the CSNY classic “Helpless,” in which Young forlornly recalls his North Ontario home. Here, though, it’s all joy, light, and whoops of anthemic abandon.
Young being Young, the mood of Pill curls inevitably inward. “Ramada Inn” is 17 minutes of roughhewn guitar, simmering sentiment, and pent-up melancholy that dwell on the regrets and lost years spent on the road. Even his sumptuous solos are unsteady and understated, as if Young is trying to recapture the slurred words and clumsy gestures of drunken phone calls home. The jaggedly elegant “Twisted Road” recounts Young’s ongoing love affair with a handful of his heroes—most notably Bob Dylan, whose lyrics Young equates to “Poetry rolling off of his tongue / Like Hank Williams chewing bubblegum.” Paying homage to a fellow legend from the perspective of a fan is a venerable rock cliché, but Young infuses it with a heartfelt freshness. And “She’s Always Dancing” boasts one of the most lulling, shivering minor-key progressions in a songbook full of them, which forms the framework for a lengthy jam full of hooks and harmonies. When Young splits the skin of the song with a bright, bleeding lead, it’s somehow still spectral and tender.
Pill trails away on a slightly lackluster note, though. “For The Love Of Man”—the disc’s only truly subdued song—is a leftover from the early ’80s, live versions of which have been popping up on bootlegs ever since. It’s a poignant tribute to Young’s cerebral palsy-stricken son Ben, the subject of more than one Young composition. Being so old, though, “For The Love” sounds exhausted, not to mention jarringly out of place in a batch of songs that ooze redemption and inspiration. The hefty “Walk Like A Giant” launches with the promise of another majestic jam, only to lock into a tuneless riff punctuated by nagging whistling from the band. Aimless and borderline annoying, the song squanders its latent power in a six-minute coda—a savage, Arc-esque squall of noise that runs five minutes too long.
“Crazy Horse is an animal unto itself,” waxes Young in Waging Heavy Peace. “Anyone who has witnessed a full-on barrage from the Horse knows that of which I speak.” His mythic yet tongue-in-cheek tone while discussing himself not only parallels Stills’ recent proclamation, it fits the way Young has always approached the band’s music: as a majestic, elemental force that can only be brought to bear with a touch of gentleness and humility. Young is Crazy Horse’s whisperer, calming the beast just long enough to jump on its back and dig into its flanks. The ride has never been smooth, but it’s always been worth the bruises. Young’s numerous, twisty left turns have inevitably led him home, to albums that reflect and rage, that rest and resonate. And Psychedelic Pill, with all its gritty warmth and haunting memories, is among his homiest.