Monday, 10 June 2013
Neil Young and Crazy Horse "Psychedelic Pill" (2012)
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“Dreamin’ ‘bout the way things sound now, write about them in my book, worry that you can’t hear me now, or feel the time I took to make you feel this feeling, and let you ride along” “I used to dig Picasso, but then the big tech giants came along and turned him into wallpaper!” “When you hear my song now you only get 5%, you used to get it all, you used to feel it all” “The way she dances makes my world stand still, when she’s spinning in the sky, every move she makes is like a psychedelic pill from a doctor I can’t find” “Every morning comes the sun, and they both rise into the day, holding on to what they’ve done, she loves him so she does what she has to, he loves her so he does what he needs to” “Once in a while when things go wrong, I might pick up a pen and scribble on a page, and try to make sense of my inner rage” “You don’t learn much when you start to get old” “First time I heard ‘like a Rolling Stone’ I felt that magic and I took it home, I gave it a twist and I made it mine, but nothing was as good as that very first time” “Flash bulbs popping at the stage door, brand new song with familiar chords, all the time looking for something new” “Walking with the devil on a twisted road, listening to the Dead on the radio, that old time music used to soothe my soul” “She wants to live without ties to bound her down, she wants to dance with her body left unbound, she wants to spin like she lives in her own world, she wants to dream like she was a little girl” “We were going to save the world, we were going to make it better, 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 to think about how close we came”
NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE “PSYCHEDELIC PILL” (2012)
Driftin’ Back/Psychedelic Pill/Ramada Inn/Born In Ontario//Twisted Road/She’s Always Dancing/For The Love Of Man/Walk Like A Giant
There I was, like an idiot, standing in the record shop, trying to work out what would be better value in terms of Neil Youngyness. As a penniless scribe on an employment and support allowance they only give me some of the time when they’re in a good mood, you see, I couldn’t afford both. Do I buy ‘Americana’, an intriguing looking set of covers of ancient American folk songs by one of America’s least reverential bands (surely that’s good for a laiugh?!) or a double set full of long (and I’m talking loooooong) songs from a band who’d already burned me with albums like the torpid ‘Broken Arrow’, the generic ‘Chrome Dreams III’ and a soap opera about the most boring family not on Eastenders (‘Greendale’), only with fewer songs and a longer running time. Like a fool, I listened to my head not my heart and chose the wrong one (although in my defence the sale price on ‘Americana’ helped quite a bit, too).
‘Americana’ is, to be frank, one of the worst AAA albums of the past five years with its dodgy hard-to-hear recordings and spineless, toothless variants on songs that have no reason to sit together except that they’re old, like some musical care home where the world intermingles together but find its too late to learn anything from each other (and which makes even ‘Greendale’ sound like a lost classic). I’m sure that review will be coming to you sometime soon, dear reader, but frankly I’m still too disappointed to have a to write a review with that much venom and scorn (I’ll save it for a day when I’m in a really cross mood. Given the problems I’m currently having with the DWP, it’ll be next week). Forget, too, how Crazy Horse tired to plug them as two separate albums – ‘Americana’ really was just a warm-up; ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is the real deal. Admittedly, this is ‘real deal’ in the sense that Neil still can’t be bothered to actually work on his songs and is still pushing his ‘first thought, best thought, only thought’ theory too often to create that late-period classic all his fans yearn for, but the source of the muse that keeps him going is stronger and louder on this record than it has been for some time – since ‘Prairie Wind’ at least. Some songs meander, some songs are short and still sound like they meander, while charging double the price for a double album that runs merely five minutes over the running time of a CD and features just eight songs and a remix is something that Scrooge McDuck would have been proud of. However, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is way better than the bitter pill I rather feared it would be and is already going down with me as a near-enough life collector of Neil’s art better than any of the past few miserable albums.
No one but Neil would release two such different albums mere weeks apart and then ignore both in favour of plugging a so-so semi-revealing-but-rambling autobiography (‘Waging Heavy Peace’, a project that gets references in these songs more times than is comfortable – more on that later). I’ve waited till now to talk to you about it – despite its November 2012 vintage – partly because my review for ‘Prairie Wind’ was knocking on my head too loud to ignore, partly because I delayed buying it for a time and partly because I needed to get to know ‘Pill’ a bit better before I reviewed it. You see ‘Americana’ I could have reviewed in a single listening – there’s no depth to it, no concept, no theme (except a very vague sense of history) and no variation – but for all it’s faults ‘Pill’ is as deep and revealing an album as we’ve had from Neil in some time. In fact as I sit here several months on I still don’t feel as if I know it – or that I’ll ever know it – because it is such a personal record, something Neil isn’t necessarily known for despite the occasional ‘Tonight’s The Night’ ‘Trans’ or ‘Sleeps With Angels’ (his most personal work). That said contemporary reviews that describe this as a ‘highly personal’ album are wrong – this isn’t about Neil’s dead friends, the struggles of his handicapped son or thoughts of his own mortality (as per the overlooked ‘Prairie Wind’), it’s a man struggling to come to terms with his long career of highs and lows and the memories writing his autobiography have brought to the surface. The sound of Neil thinking out loud, there isn’t really any conclusion going on here or an attempt to directly address his mistakes and frailties but it is nevertheless fascinating for fans to hear their hero trying to make some sense out of the ragamuffin junk in his brain and its a privilege to feel this close to the ‘real’ Neil. Given that ‘Raging Heavy Peace’ was a book more about departed friends and the past than anyone was expecting (some event in Neil’s day to day life inspiring a ‘memory’ in a loose, haphazard, non-linear arrangement throughout the book), it sounds to me too as if Neil is realizing how precious life is and how he ought to get back together with old friends while they are still here. Given the context, it’s inevitable that Crazy Horse should get the call (‘Heavy Peace’ in fact mentions the very moment Neil gets in touch with guitarist Frank Sampedro to discuss the idea), but this collaboration seems very different this time, more of a ‘goodbye’ than a ‘hello’. If ‘Tonight’s The Night’ was a noisy wake for the beloved and departed then ‘Psychedelic Pill’ sounds like a tribute service for the living, Neil paying more lip-service to past songs and ideas than he ever has before (the title track, for instance, is a modern re-telling of ‘Cinnamon Girl’, the first song the band recorded with Neil when they were still known as ‘The Rockets’; listen too to around the 10 minute mark in ‘Walk Like A Giant’ which paraphrases the opening to ‘Hey Hey My My’). There’s a familiar feel about most of this record, which happens with lost of artists in their old age, but never Neil who changes styles at least as often as he changes his socks, which makes this album sound like an alternate greatest hits playing at a slightly slow speed. It’s as if Neil is trying to give the band a ‘proper’ send off ‘just in case’ something happens to him or them, after Neil by his own admission was hit hard by not ‘preparing’ for the deaths of long-term friends like Jack Nietsche, Bruce Palmer, David Briggs and Ben Keith during the past decade or so. After all, in perhaps Neil’s most famous phrase, it’s better to burn out than it is to rust and grow old and toothless – although, of course, what that song was really saying was that its better not to have to die at all. Or, in one of this album’s lines that might well catch on just as much, ‘you don’t learn nothin’ when you start to get old’. #
So much of ‘Psychedelic Pill’ sounds like an extra chapter from Neil’s book (Neil does indeed talk about feeling the ‘muse’ upon him again in the closing chapters so in a way we’ve heard it in progress) with all the thoughts on Neil’s mind: the poor sound quality of modern digital music, his love for wife Pegi, his scares after a brain aneurysm in 2006 meant he feared it was all over (and that Neil was a lot closer to death than he ever let on at the time) and what his legacy will be. Just take a glance at the lyrics above: Neil’s never written a song about songwriting before and the effect is fascinating (‘Once in a while when things go wrong, I might pick up a pen and scribble a page and try to make sense of my inner rage’). Also, Neil’s often been keen to pay tribute to the music that spurred him on (writing songs for Elvis and the country scene in general), but he’s never been this honest before, talking about listening to ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ for the first time and wanting to ‘take that magic home and make it my own’. Neil has kinda covered his own beginnings as a musician a few times (the ever-fascinating ‘Don’t Be Denied’) and paid comments – not usually kind ones – on what his old friends are doing in the present day (lots of songs about CSNY such as ‘Hippie Dream’ and ‘The Old Homestead’ and even a cruel dig at The Beach Boys in ‘Long May You Run’). But this album manages to make Neil both a passive listener for the first time (‘Listening to the Dead on the radio, that old time music used to soothe my soul’ – and yes according to interviews Neil gave it is the Grateful Dead he means not just ‘dead’ singers in general) and reveal more than we’ve heard in a long time. ‘Me and my friends, we were going to save the world, we were going to make it better...but then the weather changed...and it fell apart..and it breaks my heart to think about how close we came’ (from ‘Walk Like A Giant’) is clearly a song about CSNY and it says more in one verse than most books about the band. The ‘weather change’ of 1970 (when Neil walked out of the ‘Deja Vu’ sessions let’s not forget) spelled the end for the quartet who delivered slightly less than before with each passing reunion (even if they still beat almost everything made by anyone else). Conversely, the same verse applies almost as perfectly to the Buffalo Springfield, Neil’s first band which disintegrated just as spectacularly (albeit again because Neil walked out – four times, in fact, over three years, a fact he doesn’t recount here). Neil’s memories on some fairly recent songs like the awful ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’ from ‘Silver and Gold’ didn’t even acknowledge these hard times, instead thinking about what fun it always was, but not ‘Giant’ – Neil’s anger and frustration at not having been able to do more with his life (despite doing so much more than almost all of his contemporaries) clearly rankles. It’s probably just my imagination, but I can just hear Neil listening to an early copy of the Stephen Stills box set ‘Carry On’ (released in March this year) and tracing his partner’s fall from grace while remembering his own (to be fair Stills has probably released far more of worth than Young in the past 20 years, albeit on some very patchy CSN/Y albums – it was the late 1980s when he badly lost the plot).
Like ‘Prairie Wind’, though, fear of the inevitable end doesn’t result in urgency or bitterness as it would in so many other artists – instead Neil accepts that he’s lived so long he can afford to take his time. Just listen to how the past is stretched into a 27 minute epic ramble on opener ‘Driftin’ Back’, Neil’s longest ever song (which sounds like ‘Goin Back’ and ‘Look Out For My Love’ stuck together with some guitar solos straight out of ‘Ragged Glory’), ‘Ramada Inn’ sounds almost short at 17 (despite being Neil’s second longest studio song)., ‘Walk Like A Giant’ mini at ‘16’ minutes (you guessed it, Neil’s third longest song) and ‘She’s Always Dancing’ positively miniscule at ‘eight’. The fact that the other four songs come in at a running time of three minutes or less (very short by Neil’s standards) gives the album a real sting-and-relax feel, like a musician caught between having too much to say and not enough time to say it, a sort of musical S.O.S of dots and dashes. Noticeably, there’s actually probably fewer lyrics on this album than most Neil Young ones (which, lets not forget, generally run half of this album’s 88 minutes) and the sound of this album is dominated by lots of pealing guitar solos. Sadly this isn’t the fiery, compulsory solos that heighten the tension as per ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (a sound which died with Danny Whitten in 1972) but then again they’re more relevant and exciting than the ones on ‘Ragged Glory’ (which too often stretched simple songs to breaking point for no apparent reason except that the band were in the ‘groove’). No, this album is more like a collection of ‘Change Your Minds’ from ‘Sleeps With Angels’, the 14 minute epic where each solo took off in a whole new direction before crashing back into the same chorus (a trick Neil uses a few times here). While fans of Neil’s simpler albums like ‘Goldrush’ and ‘Harvest’ will quickly get annoyed at having to wait ten minutes between verses to hear Neil sing, it is fair to say that almost all of these long running times are necessary: this is a band trying to work out how to say something big, not one that has nothing to say. At times the band take it too far (the last five minutes of ‘Walk Like A Giant’ is simply feedback and stomping, for instance, last acceptable on a mainstream album circa 1969, while ‘She Feels Like Dancing’ is the one song here not up to standard and could – and should – have been reduced to two or three minutes).
One other fascinating thing to report is how much of a ‘band’ Crazy Horse are here. After decades of bad reviews even Neil was beginning to leave the general view that Crazy Horse were a group of musicians who couldn’t really play. Like Neil, I love the band’s primitive, raw power, which has the added bonus of making Neil’s guitar parts sound huge, but the band are better musicians (and singers) than mealy mouthed critics ever give them credit for. Thankfully Neil has stopped telling them what to do now (as he kept doing circa the 1980s and even ‘Greendale’, trying to turn them into the sophisticated musicians he always plays with otherwise) and is back to celebrating their unique, powerful, noisy sound again instead of trying to disguise it. Whilst I’ve always considered Ralph Molina one of the best drummers in the business, the shock here is what a star Frank Sampedro is. While still not as attuned telepathically to Neil’s playing (who is?) Sampedro is really finding his feet now, playing rhythm parts that are the perfect fit to Neil’s and occasionally the equal to them. Instead of simply filling in the space between the bass and lead guitar, Sampedro is off on exciting musical journeys of his own and ‘Pill’ is by far his best playing on album despite him being with the band some 37 years (perhaps, on an album that more than any since 1975 confronts the ghost of Danny Whitten, Neil has finally realised what a great bond he has with his replacement too?). Far from being the mad powerhouse many Crazy Horse albums end up being, there are some classic moments of dynamics and subtlety too, more like Crazy Horse’s ‘guest appearances’ on Neil’s albums such as ‘Comes A Time’ and ‘Hawks and Doves’ where the band add bite to Neil’s acoustic songs. The very opening of the first track, for instance, is a gorgeous acoustic song with pristine harmonies even CSNY would struggle to reach that suddenly fades in backwards to the more expected heavy rock playing.
Overall, I’m impressed. While this album simply isn’t deep or emotional enough to challenge ‘Tonight’s The Night’ in some fans’ hearts (and its not commercial enough to replace ‘Goldrush’ or ‘Harvest’ in some others’) this is the best Neil’s delivered for some time – seven years on his own (since ‘Prairie Wind’); 19 years with Crazy Horse (‘Sleeps With Angels’). We commented on our last ‘new’ Neil LP ‘Le Noise’ that although by his own high standards that album simply wasn’t good enough there were lots of promising signs that the muse was back. Neil was using his old fashioned ‘massive’ sound again and they suited his songs, even if all this ‘one idea for a song, one take for a song, one week to make the whole thing’ idea was getting in the way of what good ideas were there. ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is also rushed in places, the fact that the band came out with not one but two (and actual disc wise three) albums during their few months together shows that this album too was done quickly and more or less ‘live’. The difference is that more thinking has been going on here, Neil’s done his homework a bit more before the tapes began rolling and the band do ‘know’ these songs a lot better than they did for ‘Greendale’ (which apparently had each song written in order by Neil in his car on the way to the sessions). It’s not flawless (‘She’s Still Dancing’ is one of the poorest Neil Young songs in a while), it should easily have been cut down to a single album and at times the excessive running length of both songs and album seems to be more to push some boundaries than because of any outpouring of inspiration. All that said, though, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is a highly enjoyable LP that alters the Crazy Horse sound just enough to be interesting whilst still very much in keeping with past successes. It’s definitely a grower too – although I added it at the bottom of last year’s top releases’ I do regret not putting it nearer the top of the list for 2012. Perhaps in time, too, this album will be seen as a stepping stone to the next, greater album to come (who knows?) or even added to future editions of Neil’s ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ book as a ‘soundtrack album’ (it would work really well, the two projects definitely impacting each other). Or perhaps it’s the last great (or semi-great) Neil Young and Crazy Horse album. Only time will tell. But for once, this latest psychedelic pill done by an artist in a hurry and in his older, less inspired years isn’t bitter to swallow at all. As for ‘Americana’, if anyone out there would like a game of Frisbee with it sometime, be my guest...
‘Driftin’ Back’ is one of the most fascinating songs Neil has ever written. A huge collage of feelings from the past and present presented in a non-linear way very like the layout of Neil’s book, this is an all-encompassing song that starts like a Tudor minstrel ballad and ends up as a rock guitar workout. Despite being Neil’s longest song in history, extended by some of the most thrilling guitar interplay the Sampedro line-up of Crazy Horse has ever come up with, it doesn’t sound extended or forced – unlike a lot of Crazy Horse’s previous ‘long’ songs. The opening is lovely, an acoustic opening that sounds as if the song’s going to be similar to its near-namesake ‘Goin’ Back’, strumming the same two chords over and over as if Neil is always looking over his shoulder. But no, there’s a marvellous change in tone some two minutes in when we fade in to the mother of all Crazy Horse jams (how much longer is this song on the original unedited tapes then?!) that should be forced and hollow but thanks to a glittering peal of Crazy Horse harmonies and a clever fade-in it sounds as if this song has always been playing throughout Neil’s career, as if he’s ‘Driftin’ Back’ to the source of his muse. Certainly once the song gets going it sounds like lots of different Crazy Horse songs stuck together. It takes eight glorious minutes for Neil to stop setting the scene and sing the first ‘proper’ verse – the length at which most of his songs have already finished. Neil starts his first verse ‘proper’ by wondering if anyone is still listening to what he writes after years in the doldrums before speaking about what the new muse coursing through his veins is doing for him (and us) in a pretty good description of music at its best, designed ‘to help you feel this feeling, to let you ride along’. Neil then turns the tables on us, much as he does through most of ‘Waging Heavy Peace’, wondering about us, the listener, and how we feel when we hear this music. Some four minutes later Neil comes up with the most cryptic verse of the song, recounting how in meditation ‘I block out all my thoughts’ until they come on so strong and powerfully he has to let them in (presumably the inspiration he longs for throughout writing most of the book, fearing his musical creativity has ‘gone dry’).
Perhaps Neil has been doing a lot of listening to his old work, not only for his book but for the ‘Archives’ box set a few years ago. How else can you explain the next verse, which takes a potshot at organised religion like the days of old, the narrator ‘giving 35 bucks’ as his price of admission to see the Maharashi and Neil taunting ‘it went to the organisation’, slurring that last word to make it sound like the complete antithesis of spiritualism and religious freedom (if religion is personal to all, who needs an ‘organisation’ for it?!) This verse isn’t linked to the rest of the song, recalling similar moments in such different songs like ‘Soldier’ (‘Jesus I saw you walking on the river, you can’t deliver!’) and ‘Song X’ (where a priest has a girl locked away for having an abortion). It’s quite fascinating to hear that Neil’s take on what used to be one of his favourite themes in the 1970s hasn’t dimmed at all – in the book he addresses religion square on and calls himself ‘a pagan (if anything)’. Unlike his younger self, though, Neil half-takes the last verse back, offering up the line ‘excuse my religion’ (although again this is sung in such a way that we feel he’s mocking us again).
Now nearing the 20 minute mark, Neil is back to another of his book’s favourite themes: the problems with modern digital sound reducing everything to a ‘middle band’ of average low and high frequencies so that modern music – or old music re-produced for digital form – sounds all the same (in Neil’s words ‘you only get 5%’). In one of his more eloquent interview of the 1990s, when CDs were still new, Neil likened digital as opposed to analogue music to ‘taking an ice cold shower and being hit with tiny cubes, instead of a bath where the water rushes all over you’. Famously, Neil still refuses for some of his albums (most importantly ‘Time Fades Away’) to be released on CD until the situation ‘improves’ and Neil goes to great lengths to make sure all his modern music is also available on vinyl or high quality downloads (a worthy cause, until you realise that each vinyl record costs around double the price of the CD and the downloads take an eternity and most of your internet allowance to download). At first Neil mocks the modern call for possessing art in miniature on phones and on walls, claiming ‘I used to dig Picasso’ for his sheer refusal to follow rules and ability to go to new places art had never been before; nowadays his uniqueness has been forgotten and he’s been turned into just another ‘wallpaper’. Whether knowingly or not this next section directly mimics fellow AAA band Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’, taunting ‘I don’t want my MP3’ (instead of ‘MTV’) and – a few minutes later – a sarcastic ‘Gonna get me a hip hop haircut’ like the grumpy old man Neil is proudly becoming.
Rather than wrapping up or thoroughly investigating any of these thoughts Neil simply ends with the lines ‘Blocking out my anger, finding my religion, I might be a Pagan!’ in a line that’s close enough quoted verbatim from his book. Some people have been disappointed at the rambling nature of this song, perhaps expecting all the different threads to be tied together somehow, but actually I like the fact that this song doesn’t have any answers. The song might be titled ‘Driftin’ Back’ but in true Young style its actually more about the present and all the thoughts rolling across Neil’s subconscious. He doesn’t have any answers yet so can’t add them to the song. While far from perfect – repeating the title phrase a grand total of 50 times throughout the song is lazy, even for a song that lasts 27 minutes – the lyrics are intriguing, revealing enough to be of interest to fans while cryptic enough not to give the game away. The song, though, would be nothing without those glorious extended guitar outbursts, especially the opening eight minutes where Neil and Sampedro hit the mother of all grooves, gradually circling each other and getting further away from the original direction whilst still in touch. By far Sampedro’s best playing on record, this is also one of Neil’s career best performances, content to take its time and make the most out of each take on the verse. Non-fans will probably be driven to distraction by thought of a rambling 27 minute song with only five proper verses and lots of guitar-work, but if you’re a fan – particularly of the Crazy Horse era – and you don’t already know this album then I can guarantee you’re salivating right now at the prospect of such an epic, revealing song!
Moving on (finally!) the title track ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is heard here in two versions – the ‘album cut’, a hard-to-hear heavily phased and effect-ridden version of the song and the ‘remix’ added as a ‘bonus cut’ (despite this being the first issue of the CD...strange) without the effects. I hate the first one and love the second, as any attempt to ‘modernise’ the timeless Crazy Horse sound seems pointless to me. A stomping, grungy angry little rocker with a riff that’s only a shade away from ‘The Loner’ stapled onto ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’, but a lyric that recounts ‘Cinnamon Girl’ in the 21st century, its another of the album’s more successful songs. Sadly even the ‘bonus’ version is mixed a little strangely, with Neil’s double-tracked voice drenched with echo and switching from the left and right channels so often it makes you queasy. To be fair, though, the effect is highly fitting for this disorientating song where the two dancing lovers circle each other in a trance – though whether from the music, from the pill mentioned in the title or from being in love with each other (or a combination of all three) I couldn’t say. The refrain of the song tells us that the ‘party girl’ is looking for a ‘good time’, but the sheer power of the noise that Crazy Horse use and the disorientating feeling of the song suggests that, however good a time the pair are having now, they’re going to pay for it with a massive hangover in the morning. There’s a hint in the lyric, too, that this is a ‘party girl’ out for escapism, dancing out her troubles and trying to forget her woes rather than the carefree dancer who loves life in ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and the last couplet (where when she dances ‘every move is like a psychedelic pill from a doctor I can’t buy’) suggests the narrator needs the escapism just as much. At three minutes, with almost as many verses as the previous 27 minute track, this is a tight little rocker that’s leaner than most recent Neil Young songs and makes for a nice change, even if your head will swim for quite a time after playing it. Listen out, too, for the middle eight where Neil charges ahead with the lines ‘I get by’ in exactly the same way The Beatles sang ‘I can’t hide’ on ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’, neatly updating that song’s exuberance to the present day as much as his own songs.
‘Ramada Inn’ is an innaresting song too. The slowest song on what’s actually quite a fast paced album, its 17 minutes might be ten minutes shorter than ‘Driftin’ Back’, but because its all so slow and uninterrupted by guitar solos this song sounds like even more of an epic. By comparison with the rest of the album, there isn’t much of a melody here, Neil simply singing the lines almost all on one note as he did on ‘Greendale’, which is a shame. That said, the lyrics are fascinating, filling in some of the story of Neil’s past he didn’t get space to talk about in his book. Neil’s narrator recounts what a good life he’s had, despite the ‘ups and downs’, but fears that the good times are dying out – his spread-out family, of various ages, have all fled the nest now (Neil’s been preparing for this moment ever since daughter and youngest child Amber Jean went to university during the making of ‘Are You Passionate?’ in 2001) and Neil is wondering what he has left. One of his most mournful guitar solos ever suggests the answer’s ‘not much’, but there’s a sudden unexpected metaphor when Neil says that ‘every morning comes the sun and they both rise into the day’, which could be a reference to either of his two sons, Ben or Zeke. Elsewhere the song becomes less personal – and less interesting – telling the tale of a lonely couple coming back home and staying for the night in the ‘Ramada Inn’ where ‘because she loves him so’ ‘she does what she needs to do’. The people there ‘haven’t seen him forever, since high school’, as they go back to old haunts (this, surely, is what Neil himself did, visiting old Canadian places he hadn’t seen in a long time while working on the book?) It surely too is Neil himself singing the fascinating last verse where ‘it seems lately things are changing’ and wondering whether they’re visiting old haunts because the end is near (Neil did come close to dying in 2005 remember, a fact whose impact is still pouring itself into all his songs since). The wife loyally hangs on but ‘she feels she hardly knows him’ despite several years of marriage together, despite his desperate pleas over and over that ‘he loves her so’. Like many of Neil’s similar songs, there’s no real ending for this cast of characters who simply drift through life helplessly. The general view of fans is that this slow, ponderous, semi-revealing song is the saving grace on the album – for all its fascinating lines and another strong bout of Crazy Horse telepathic interplay, this is one of the weaker songs on the album to me, the lack of a good strong melody and another highly repetitive chorus (‘S/he loves him so’, repeated a total of 24 times this time around) preventing this song from becoming the true classic it might have been. Compared to the recent run of albums, though (‘Le Noise’ back through to ‘Broken Arrow’ in 1997) this is still wonderful stuff, almost worth sitting through just for those wonderful sweet-and-sour Crazy Horse harmonies alone, the highlight of the track.
‘Born In Ontario’ rounds off the first CD by more or less repeating the last song’s sentiments of ‘going back home’. After some 30 odd years of hearing Neil sing about ‘the good ole U S of A’ its strange to hear him proudly proclaiming his Canadian nationality, repeating the word ‘Ontario’ some twelve times. Perhaps performing at the Canadian winter Olympics a few years ago has gone to Neil’s head? Musically this is another of those dopey lopsided cod country-rock songs Neil comes out with every few years (filling up whole sides of records with them on the albums ‘American Stars ‘n’ Bars’ and ‘Hawks and Doves’), but the lyrics are a lot more interesting than most similar songs in this vein. While not as descriptive as the ‘other’ song about Neil’s Canadian past (CSNY’s gorgeous ‘Helpless’) or as strictly autobiographical as the opening of ‘Don’t Be Denied’), there’s a lot of great, insightful couplets here. Despite proudly telling us over and over ‘I was born In Ontario!’ Neil admits where he’s born doesn’t really matter (‘It don’t really matter where I am, it’s what I do, it’s what I can’), revealing more about his songwriting methods (‘Once in a while, when things go wrong, I pick up a pen, scribble on a page, and try to make sense of my inner rage’)and remembering that from his childhood days in Ontario ‘that’s where I learned most of what I know’. Some of the touches here – strangely missing from the book – are sweet, such as a toddler Neil trying to copy his famous writer father Scott by borrowing his typewriter ‘for a couple of miles’ (thus extending the earlier metaphor of art being like ‘a journey’, although it was probably to keep Neil busy during a long car journey) and explaining why he didn’t stay in Ontario for very long (‘I left home at a tender young age, ‘cause mom and daddy never liked to stay’). Indeed, most fans long assumed Neil was really born in Winnipeg until Neil’s book came out, given that this is the town where Neil spent the longest and where he’s most connected with (with Joni Mitchell living round the corner, although the pair didn’t meet until their 20s). The best line in the song, though, is undoubtedly ‘You don’t learn much when you start to get old’, a line that both recalls and matches the ones about how ‘rust never sleeps’ and how ‘its better to burn out than to fade away’. By returning to the place of his early childhood, Neil wants to be young again. Musically Crazy Horse throw a few new things into the song, Sampedro coming up with a clever accordion part that makes the song sound at once like history and like a party in the present (its the sort of thing Nils Lofgren always used to play on these albums) and the three Horses adding another clever harmony part to the song. All in all, probably the best of the short songs on the album.
The second CD is sadly not quite up to the first, ‘Twisted Road’ sounding so similar to ‘Born In Ontario’ it may as well have been titled ‘Part Two’. Again, though, the lyrics are the highlight of another fascinating song, Neil recounting the moment that music first hit him between the eyes (hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ on the radio ‘poetry rolling off his tongue’ – which seems rather late, given that Neil had already been releasing records with the Buffalo Springfield for a few weeks by this time), seeing Roy Orbison live in concert (where, unforgivably ‘seeing Roy’... ‘brought me joy’ in easily the worst lyric of the album) and being in the present, wondering where all the good music went, while ‘listening to the ‘Dead’ on the radio’. As we said earlier, Neil really does mean the Grateful Dead apparently, given what he’s said in interviews to plug the album, but the use of the name here is very clever – this song is Neil’s tribute to all the great singers and songwriters gone but not forgotten from every generation, ‘the dead’ living on on the radio. The thought of Neil ‘walkin’ with the devil down a twisted road’ never seems to match up with the rest of the song though (did it start as an off-shoot from ‘Greendale’ where the Devil is the main character?) and the song’s melody and arrangement is even more of a mock-hoe-down (poor Crazy Horse, forced into singing a chorus that clearly doesn’t suit them, sound like they’re desperately trying not to shout out ‘yee-hah!’ Still, even if ‘Twisted Road’ isn’t up to the best work on this album, it still sounds much more developed than most recent Neil Young songs and has an intriguing hook, some fascinating heart-warming lyrics and another strong band performance (this is the most ‘shimmery’ and other-worldly their guitar parts have sounded since ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ in 1969!) Best lyric: ‘Poetry rolling off his tongue, like Hank Williams chewing bubble gum!’
Even by Neil’s recent ‘lesser’ albums, however, ‘She’s Still Dancing’ sounds dreadful. The worst song on the album by a country mile, I’m surprised it made the cut, seeing as this one song could have been removed to make this a ‘single’ album. The riff Crazy Horse play this time seems generic in the extreme, simply a speeded up version of ‘Driftin’ Back’ without the magic or poise, while the lyrics manage to make even the deliberately Neanderthal ‘When You Dance I Can Really Love’ sound like Yeats’ poetry. The dancing theme was already covered well enough by the title track – by contrast this song doesn’t sound like dancing (its too slow and the beat irregular), instead it sounds like drowning. There’s another repetitive chorus – the Achilles heel of this whole record – but even the rest of the lyrics sound pretty poor (‘She wants to live without ties to bound her down, she wants to dance with her body left at ground’). The song also gets dangerously close to repeating ‘Be The Rain’, the less-than-inspired finale to ‘Greendale’, in the melody-stakes while lyrically this is just ‘Psychedelic Pill’ again written on a less inspired day (it even re-uses the lines about ‘spinning’). Not one of Neil’s better ideas, with even another bout of excellent Crazy Horse harmonies failing to rescue the blandest and most pointless song on the album. Frankly, even on ‘Le Noise’ or ‘Greendale’ I’d have been disappointed with this – in the middle of Neil’s best work in some time it sounds downright hideous. Also, at eight minutes its only the fifth longest track here (!), but whereas the other long songs have grandeur, this one would pall at two or three. Worst lyric: ‘Floating in the smoke, it gives her hope’.
‘For The Love Of Man’ isn’t the best song here either, but its slower tempo and smoky Sleeps-With Angels-like fragility makes it really stand out here. Without the sheer noise to sing over the cracks in Neil’s voice really begin to show here, while the tune sounds remarkably like last album ‘Le Noise’ (only Ralph Molina’s excellent drum track separates it from that ‘solo’ performance). Lyrically, though, is a sort-of-sequel to ‘When God Made Me’, the moving finale to ‘Prairie Wind’, this time finding Neil wondering out loud whether the amount of ‘love’ a person gets in their lives has been decided before their birth and whether for each birth ‘angels ring the bells in the holy hills’. Again, Neil’s becoming much more accepting of religion the older he gets – compare this to the verse about the Maharishi in ‘Driftin’ Back’ - but makes it clear that he doesn’t know if any of this is true; it might just be his imagination running away with him. Even more moving is the second (and last) verse, Neil walking down a ‘dusty road’ to a Church he doesn’t know, asking the heavens to ‘let me wonder there’ and see whether there is anything in what they say (compare this to ‘Yonder Stands The Sinner’, where Neil can’t get away from the sight of a church quick enough!) By the end Neil is still not convinced either way, claiming that what he sees makes him feel ‘it’s alright’ but that still he continues to ‘wonder why’ – divine inspiration? Or imagination? The jury’s still out. Humble and quiet, without as strong a tune as some of the other songs, its’ easy for ‘For The Love Of Man’ to get lost, but it’s well worth the effort to analyse it; this is a song that might not rank among Neil’s best but offers plenty to think about.
This scattershot 88 minutes epic desperately needs a strong song to tie things together and ‘Walk Like A Giant’ largely fulfils that role, at least until a rather curious extended finale of feedback and stomping that extends the song from a nine minute epic into a 16 minute piece of noise. Clearly inspired by his autobiography once more, this is Neil longing for the time when he and his friends had respect, power and worth and firmly believed in what they were doing, ‘walking like a giant on the land’. In the past Neil has shied away from such claims, distancing himself from CSN’s belief that music could change the world with a series of songs like ‘Hippie Dream’ that decry how those ‘wooden ships’ had ‘hippie sails’ that wouldn’t get them very far. Perhaps it was CSN’s enthusiastic support of Neil’s controversial ‘Living With War’ album and Neil’s sudden love of politics in the wake of the Iraq war and 9/11 that’s made him think otherwise; whatever, Neil now claims that spiritual utopia was ‘in the distance...getting closer every minute’ until without warning ‘the train left the tracks’. Neil stands there now, after some 50 years nearly of making some of the most powerful music ever made and – in the opinion of many – being about the only old rocker still refusing to compromise or soften his stance kicking himself for helping the train to crash and how ‘its not enough to think about how close we came’. Neil moves to the present day (ish), recounting the American and Canadian forest fires of the past few years, seeing a ‘big fire burning’ to ‘burn down all my ideas’ – he might have well as sung ‘ideals’; certainly the 60s ethos seems further away than ever now the credit crunch has revived the ‘I’m alright, Jack’ spirit of the 1980s. Neil’s claims to ‘want to walk like a giant’ are both moving and slightly silly all at the same time, especially when someone (Billy Talbot?) adds a mock out of breath puff in his best ‘giant’ voice and the whole band add some nonchalant whistling! There’s no doubting the sentiment of the song, though, or the stinging choppy guitar work Neil adds to the song which recounts both ‘Cortez The Killer’ and ‘Like An Inca’. While not as epic or as strong as ‘Driftin’ Back’, this 16 minute song is still far better and much more developed than anything Neil’s given us for a while and ‘Walk Like A Giant’ is a fascinating song, if only to see how Neil’s feelings have shifted and softened down the years. The end five minutes are, frankly, a waste, recalling the unlistenable endings many of the ‘Ragged Glory’ songs contained, but even seems sort of suitable somehow, Neil railing at the world one last time and recalling the pyrotechnics and frustration of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend, wondering out loud whatever happened to ‘My generation’ once they grew old.
Overall, then, ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is a far better record than I was expecting both because of Neil’s recent poor form, Crazy Horse’s poor form and the unlistenable curio that ‘Americana’ was, a starter released mere weeks before this main course. Neil has a lot of life left in him yet and even though he’s nowhere near the same level he was even as recently as the 1990s the fire inside him is still raging strong and Crazy Horse, especially, sound like a band half their age. Neil ended his last great run of albums with 1993’s ‘Sleeps With Angels’, a dark, mysterious album highly similar to this one with it’s moody monochrome shots of life in the (then) present day and requiems for younger singers who didn’t see the point in growing old and selling out. Hopefully ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is the start of a whole new brilliant phase, with Neil and Crazy Horse picking up where they left off, updating the songs so that the characters a little older and the 60s dream is a little more faded but who still are very much recognisable from the characters of the past. Frank Sampedro, in particular, has cracked the art of flying off in his own world while still listening to Neil (something Danny Whitten seemed to pick up without even trying but which is a woefully hard act to pull off) and Crazy Horse are at last being used properly, instead of being stapled into concepts where their sound doesn’t go. There might not be any individual song here to compare to ‘Like A Hurricane’ or ‘Cortez The Killer’, but like ‘Sleeps With Angels’ this is a fascinating mood piece that only lets the side down once and managed to run to double the length of Neil’s last LP (‘Le Noise’) despite containing the same number of songs. The medicine the modern world needs, the beast is waking up again and Crazy Horse sounds like they have many more miles to gallop yet, however many references there are on this album to aging and mortality. Perhaps Neil ought to write books more often if they waken his muse and his feelings of nostalgia as wonderfully as this... Overall rating 8/10
Other Neil Young and Crazy Horse reviews you might be interested in reading:
'Crazy Horse' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/11/news-views-and-music-issue-48-crazy.html
‘After The Goldrush’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/neil-young-after-goldrush-1970.html?utm_source=BP_recent
'Time Fades Away' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/neil-young-time-fades-away-1973.html
'Tonight's The Night' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-66-neil-young-tonights-night.html
'American Stars 'n' Bars'
'Comes A Time' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/news-views-and-music-issue-29-neil.html
'Hawks and Doves' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/news-views-and-music-issue-26-neil.html
'Sleeps With Angels' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/news-views-and-music-issue-121-neil.html
'Mirror Ball' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/news-views-and-music-issue-103-neil.html
'Le Noise' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/news-views-and-music-issue-94-neil.html
'A Treasure' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/news-views-and-music-issue-147-neil.html