Album Review: Neil Young’s “Psychedelic Pill”

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To say that Neil Young is a multidimensional artist would be a gross understatement.

For many fans, there is a cut-and-dry divide between Young’s albums: Those recorded with Crazy Horse and those without.

Crazy Horse's mechanics work something like rusty cogs. Their sound is that of garage band hobbyists. For the most part, they’re guys that should have been left on the cutting room floor of rock and roll history.

But that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because Crazy Horse is Neil Young’s band. And in a bizarre twist of fate, Crazy Horse has survived by turning the tables on natural selection; they can’t play all that well, and that’s the way Young likes it.

Young plays with Crazy Horse because Crazy Horse is real. The band makes mistakes, they drop the beat, they flub guitar chords, all of which makes each performance a real gamble.

But it’s a gamble that keeps each Neil Young and Crazy Horse album so raw and so true-sounding. 

In this day of perfectly timed drum edits and pitch-corrected vocal performances, Psychedelic Pill really stands out.

After a nearly decade-long hiatus, Young and the band are back with two albums this year, the first being Americana, a record featuring covers of traditional songs and ballads, released last June.

I’m saddened to say that Americana will likely be placed in the "forgettable" stack of Neil Young records in the days to come, though the effort was sincere.

That's not the case with Psychedelic Pill. I’m glad to report that this release may be the record that die-hard Young fans have been waiting on, for perhaps two decades.

Young has released popular and critically acclaimed works in recent years. However, I personally never found myself completely taken by albums like Le Noise, Chrome Dreams II or Living With War.

Though intriguing due to their explorative nature and topical subjects, I feel Young hasn’t released an album with true staying power since Harvest Moon (1992) and its predecessor, Ragged Glory (1990).

Which is not to say it’s all been a wash: Prairie Wind (2005) was a pleasant record, albeit a bit predictable and perhaps a little too harmless.

But Psychedelic Pill isn't without its drawbacks. It's an album you need to be in the mood for. Specifically, you’ll need to be in the mood for guitars. Electric guitars. A lot of electric guitars. And Crazy Horse.

"Driftin’ Back" is the album's first meandering guitar drone epic and works as a brilliant opening track. Clocking in at over 27 minutes, the song is an introduction to what Psychedelic Pill has in store: Reminiscence, contemplation, anger and lengthy guitar workouts, similar to classic tunes like "Down By The River" and "Cowgirl In The Sand."

The lyrics found in "Driftin’ Back" are perhaps some of the least artful phrases ever penned by Mr. Young. A total stream of consciousness, Young sings about mp3 files, religion, Picasso, his new autobiography and even hairdos ("Gonna get me a hip hop haircut/Gonna get a hip hop haircut/Gonna get a hip hop haircut/Hey now now, hey now now").

But it doesn't really matter. "Driftin’ Back" works because of the anticipation of discovering the small islands of chorus scattered throughout the sea of electric guitar distortion and drone.

The album's formula is long guitar-driven explorative pieces, bookended by more traditional three-to-four minute Ragged Glory-esque rock songs.

A few of these short songs ("Psychedelic Pill," "Born In Ontario") are fine compositions. However, I can’t help feeling like we’ve heard these songs before on previous releases.

And with an album run time of nearly an hour and a half, some of these less effective tunes could have been considered material for Young’s Archives series, as opposed to an official release.

"Ramada Inn" will likely prove to be the most memorable track from Psychedelic Pill. Coming in at just under 17 minutes, the song is reflexive in its lyrical tone and follows the formula laid down by "Driftin’ Back," but sounds planned and rehearsed.

Young’s guitar absolutely screams through the solos, but his vocals are more subdued as he contemplates aging, love and growing old, almost in a pleading tone.

Running a mere four minutes, "For The Love Of Man" serves as a break from the madness. With quiet reverbed guitar and deep bass drum hits, the song sounds more like a lullaby than anything else Young has ever written.

The sound evoked is that of those fleeting moments right before falling asleep and right before waking up. It’s a very still and calming song, and plays a very interesting role as a lead-in to the album's hard-hitting finale.

"Walk Like A Giant" tells the tale of Neil Young’s prominence in popular music in the good old days, and his lessening influence in the modern day ("I used to walk like a giant on the land/now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream").

Perhaps more than any other song on the record, "Walk Like A Giant" directly addresses regret and disappointment, especially in the early days of his music career ("We were ready to save the world/but then the weather changed/and the white got stained/and it fell apart/and it breaks my heart").

Complete with an ominous whistled melody, compliments of Crazy Horse, "Walk Like A Giant" hits hard and brings with it the same mood captured in the classic track "Like A Hurricane," featuring fragile, revealing choruses amongst a heavy, swirling atmosphere.

Psychedelic Pill is both a return to form and a new chapter in the Neil Young and Crazy Horse story. The familiar sound of Young bashing away with the Horse has returned after a 10-year vacation.

But at the same time, the album lays out new ground for these elder statesmen to explore and experiment.

Winter is coming soon. My recommendation: Drag your favorite chair out in front of the stereo and dedicate an hour and a half to experiencing the nuanced landscapes of this album.

Do this a few times if you can, as Psychedelic Pill has a way of becoming less and less unwieldy with each listen. Like re-reading a book, you’ll discover new details you missed last time in the midst of the story.

I, for one, am greatly looking forward to my next all-night car trip to Cleveland. I can’t imagine a more perfect match for hundreds of miles of darkened highway road than Psychedelic Pill.