Neil Young's Psychedelic Pill: An Extended Look
While I was talking with a friend last week about Psychedelic Pill, he declared it to be Neil Young's best album since 1979's hippie-punk monster Rust Never Sleeps. Dude knows what he's talking about: He's a serious fan with a deep understanding of our hero's catalog, including just about every full-length released in the 32 years since Young claimed, "It's better to burn out than to fade away."
I'm a tad more cautious. Though I think this new one is quite excellent (the recently reunited Crazy Horse are once again firing on all cylinders), I'm also the type of screwball who counts among his all-time Young favorites the "New Wave" oddities Trans and Re-ac-tor, as well as the thunderous live set Weld (captured at the onset of his father-of-grunge phase in the '90s). What's more, I believe he's recorded a few in the last decade that in time will attain classic status, including space-blues sojourn Le Noise and Fork in the Road, probably the only album in the history of pop music that dovetails post-punk's scrape-metal funk into green economics and heartland rock.
Nevertheless, the temptation to agree with my pal's assertion definitely rears itself whenever I spin the thing. This, I think, is a function of the fact that Psychedelic Pill is a profoundly vintage-sounding record. Even supposed return-to-form albums Freedom, Ragged Glory and Harvest Moon (all from the same period as the aforementioned Weld) didn't come this thoroughly steeped in earthy '70s flavor. Numerous are the stretches, moments and scraps of sound that elicit the reaction, "Now, this totally could've appeared on Zuma or American Stars 'N Bars."
But to label Psychedelic Pill a nostalgic record is far too simple. It would be more accurate to call it a document of the artist's struggles with the very notion of nostalgia, and how it relates to aging, memory and the forward creep of time. These ideas make themselves apparent from the get-go. On the very first song, "Driftin' Back," Young reflects on how the digital age has smothered the rich, analog potency of his classic albums. Swathed in soft harmonies reminiscent of CSN&Y, he sings, "Worried that you can't hear me now/ Feel the time I took to help you feel this feeling/ Let you ride along, dreaming about the way you feel now when you hear my song."
He and Crazy Horse then launch into 20-plus minutes of soaring California folk rock that, oddly enough, feels significantly more jammy and hippie than anything they ever recorded back in the day. It's almost as if they're losing themselves in a fuzzy vision of a bygone sound that was never their own. While all this is going on, Neil's quivering voice intones, "I used to dig Picasso/ Then the big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper." And later, "Don't want my MP3/ I'm drifting back." (Then again, he also chants, "Gonna get me a hip-hop haircut," which is Neil just being his typically inscrutable self.) So yeah, the 66-year-old Young sounds like a guy who, on some deep level, wishes he could turn back the clock, yet also understands that such an unquenchable desire tends to distort our memories of the past, ultimately turning them into pure fiction.
In contrast, his ruminations on "Ramada Inn" are rather straightforward (if significantly more despairing). Featuring a raw and muddy twang loosely recalling the score he composed for Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man, the 16-minute tale might or might not be autobiographical; either way, it's for the most part told from the trajectory of a man looking back on a marriage that first slipped into an alcohol-stained haze, then numb resignation. On this one, Crazy Horse's poetically frayed lurch and sad, reverberating distortion both tell the story as much as Young's blunt lyrics. Like ghosts that can't be driven from a haunted house, these pungent qualities play the role of all ineffable hardships and failures that forever lurk in both lovers' hearts.
But then there's "Born in Ontario." It, too, is about looking back, yet couldn't be more different, emotionally. A boisterous ode to his home province, it in all honesty is something of a toss-off, the kind of endearing romp Young and Crazy Horse can do in their sleep ("Saddle Up the Old Palomino" comes to mind for some reason). It, however, is notable because it serves as a counterpoint to "Don't Be Denied" from 1973's Time Fades Away. The childhood reminiscences found in the lastter tune are in comparison so resolutely desperate and dour that I can't help but think that this time around, Young intentionally set out to write a happy song about his upbringing. The feel-good vibe carries into the country-rock jaunt "Twisted Road," a meditation on the music that has inspired him over the years, including both Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and "listening to The Dead on the radio." The Grateful Dead name-drop is an interesting one, mainly because Young and Crazy Horse uncannily echo the group's spacey, free-drift aesthetic for a handful of moments scattered across Psychedelic Pill ("Driftin' Back" being the prime example).
Technically speaking, the album concludes with an alternate mix of the title track, a gnarled chunk of hard rock whose lo-fi blur reminds us of the ensemble's deep impact on alternative rock (Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam, etc). Thematically, however, the true end is the penultimate "Walk Like a Giant." It's another extended piece (over 16 minutes), and on it Young descends into a gooey phantasmagoria of hippie longing. "We were going to save the world," the Woodstock legend weeps, before he and Crazy Horse unleash muddy squalls of guitar underpinned by their calling-card stomp. Over the song's final five minutes, the group slowly falls apart and dissolves into a bottomless cavern of formless noise. It's a chilling reminder that the very same thing happens to all the memories and history we so desperately cling to: Eventually, they slip into forgotten darkness.