A LARGE PILL TO SWALLOW:
The wild and reckless abandon of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s gargantuan muse
Neil Young is one of the greatest North American artists ever. He’s surpassed perhaps only by Bob Dylan in terms of longevity, importance and prolific output. That being said, he’s also a master in self-sabotage. To say Young’s a man that stands up for his convictions is an understatement because he’ll do so even if it means making artistic decisions that hurt the quality of his musical creations. It’s well known that Young was sued in the mid 80’s by his own record company for making music that was “unrepresentative” of Neil Young. There’s also the issue of his recent string of albums since 2000. While’s there’s been good records such as the underrated Greendale, the politically-charged Living With War and the solid collage of Chrome Dreams II, it’s by in large been an uneven and underwhelming 12 years. It hasn’t been as dreadful as his career nadir of the 80’s but there’s been under-baked or phoned-in efforts such as Silver & Gold, Are You Passionate?, Prairie Wind, Fork in the Road, and Le Noise. Some of those records had their moments but they were nowhere near as brilliant or awe-inspiring as his brilliant run in the late 60’s and most of the 1970’s or as magnificent as his aforementioned peer Bob Dylan’s latter day resurgence. It’s been a frustrating go of it for his die-hard fans to say the least that wanted one last great record from Neil Young. Enter 2012’s Psychedelic Pill which reunites Neil with the full version of Crazy Horse, his legendary on again off again backing band of the last 43 years. It’s the first time he’s been with the full group since 1996’s Broken Arrow. With guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina, Neil and his favorite scruffs return to the garage to jam out the double album of Psychedelic Pill, the biggest album of Young’s career, also his best in over 20 years.
The fantastic opening sequence of “Driftin’ Back” is a delicate deception of Young strumming an acoustic guitar before the Crazy Horse harmonies lull you into a dream-like state. From there it’s a feedback drenched slab of classic Neil Young & Crazy Horse attack, only this sprawling cut stretches out for over 27 minutes, the longest song in Young’s catalog of studio albums which speaks volumes. It’s a fuzzed-out meditation loaded with meandering and piercing guitar assaults. Young ponders in an unorthodox, near-absurd manner rambling about religion, Picasso, tech giants, Mp3s, and hip-hop haircuts amongst other things as waves of distortion bathe and batter you for nearly a half hour. The title track is a piledriving garage rocker with a crunching riff lying somewhere between a “Cinnamon Girl” stomp and the lumbering grit of “Fuckin’ Up”. The second epic “Ramada Inn” clocks in at nearly 17 minutes and the Horse really get down in a groove, in a rock-steady pocket combating Neil’s echoing squalls of electric wrath as he tells of a relationship that’s clinging on for dear life battling the mundane singing, “Seems like lately things are changing/ Seems like lately things are going South/ A few drinks now and she hardly knows him/ He just looks away and checks out”. It’s a tale destined for the ditch as Young’s high tension wire solos keep us teetering on the brink. Closing out the first half of Psychedelic Pill is the autobiographical country-tinged “Born In Ontario” that has the charm of “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” sonically as Young’s narrative shows us just how far he’s come, how far he’s gone.
“Twisted Road” is a nostalgic ode to the likes of Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and The Grateful Dead. Young reminisces of first time instances musically such as when he heard “Like A Rolling Stone” remembering Dylan effortlessly pouring out barbs and poetry like, “Hank Williams chewing bubble gum”. “She’s Always Dancing” is a more conventional jam… sort of. It’s only eight and a half minutes long but this may be Young’s most soaring and majestic guitar work on the record. A beautiful haunting flight in which a mystical woman serves as his inspiration, a marvel similar to “Like A Hurricane” amidst a towering surge of amplified roars. “For The Love Of Man” is a lilting ballad and a bit of a reprieve from the blitzkrieg enveloping Psychedeic Pill until we’re tossed back into the maelstrom for the closer “Walk Like A Giant”. It’s an appropriate way to close the album, the third mammoth track at over 16 minutes. Whistles almost seem to taunt listeners from a life boat somewhere as Young’s monolithic wall of bedlam whips up the already turbulent waters into a raging destructive tempest. Rust never sleeps, but here Young and the Horse completely blow it out the joints and off of the undercarriage, rebellious to time and aging. Young’s heavy grieving is for the aspirations of his counter-culture generation of the 60’s that never really came to fruition. He wails, “I used to walk like a giant on the land/ Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream”. A helpless feeling indeed, Young continues yelping, “Me and some of my friends/ We were going to save the world/ We were tryin’ to make it better/ We were ready to save the world” before the coming to the crushing realization that, “…the weather changed/ And the white got stained/ And it fell apart/ And it breaks my heart/ To think how close we came”. You can almost visualize Young lamenting next to Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the movie Easy Rider at that campfire sighing when Fonda despondently states, “We blew it”. One singular statement that was like a nuke was dropped right on the corner of Haight and Ashbury and on the dream of a generation. “Walk Like A Giant” however is the sound of Young and the Horse barnstorming back to relevancy trying to keep alive a generation’s dream now as dim as a lone pilot light in the distance and ignite it into a firestorm. Young does so with unbridled protean guitar avalanches, sinewy and profound. Ragged and defiant as ever, raging against the dying of the light, damned if anyone will stop them. Young and the Horse transport to another galaxy in the outro as a sludgy static-riddled meltdown serves as a complete spiritual release from all of the frustration nearly bubbling over as the monster’s pounding footsteps come to a near-smoldering stop before one final round of pyrotechnics erupt in ebullience.
Psychedelic Pill proves that sometimes to get back to the promise land you just need to get back on the horse, plug that Old Black Les Paul into an amp and play the ever-loving shit out of it. Neil’s lyrical attributes may have lost a step or two over the years, but he more than makes up for that here with the cranky, dare I say furious cacophony exploding from Psychedelic Pill. Besides, Young’s astonishing and interpretive guitar passages here speak in a transcendent tongue that no world-class wordsmith could ever lock down. Crazy Horse has been known to reel Neil back in and return him to prominence when he’s lost his way and true to form, they’ve done it again. Neil lets the horses out of the stable to run wild for this ambitious piece of work, the best call he’s made in decades.
(Year of the Horse: Neil Young & Crazy Horse back in the saddle in 2012)
By Matt Ireland