Neil Young has been confounding expectations for 45 years.
In 1968 Young had his first taste of success with Buffalo Springfield.
The Canadian rocker began his career in the early 60s, gigging in a plethora
of fledgling groups before moving to Los Angeles and joining forces with
Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin. The seminal
Folk Rock band released 3 sublime albums that combined blues,
psychedelia and country. But the clash of egos proved insurmountable
and Young embarked on a solo career.
Making music as a solo artist has allowed Young the freedom
to follow his passions. By his third solo effort, Harvest, Young had his
first and only number one single, “Heart Of Gold.” He was also an integral
part of Rock’s first supergroup, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
Instead of embracing that success, Young willfully followed up
with dense and sorrowful efforts like Tonight’s The Night or On The
It was a pattern he would repeat again and again. In 1979
Young hit a mid-career peak with Rust Never Sleeps. He naturally followed
up with a series of non-commercial efforts that explored Electronica,
Rockabilly and Honky-Tonk Country. His record label was so frustrated
that they sued Young for not sounding enough like Neil Young!
By the 90s, Alternative artists like Sonic Youth and Pearl Jam
were name-checking Young as an influence, earning him the flattering
sobriquet, the “Godfather Of Grunge.” Of course Young immediately
took a sharp left turn, revisiting his mellow Harvest era by
recording a follow up, Harvest Moon. Naturally it was a critical
and commercial success.
Maybe the only consistent component of Young’s solo
career has been his collaboration with the band Crazy Horse.
The band originally appeared on Young’s second solo album,
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere in 1969.
Guitarist Danny Whitten, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer
Ralph Molina provided ballast for Young’s psychedelic flights of
fancy. (Sadly, Whitten died of a drug overdose in 1972. But the band
pressed on, recruiting a replacement, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro).
Crazy Horse has contributed to 15 of Young’s solo efforts
throughout the years. At the beginning of 2012 they released
Americana, a collection of traditional American Folk songs.
Less than a year later, they have returned with Psychedelic Pill.
The opening track, “Driftin Back,” begins like a pastoral
acoustic reverie. Any expectations that the song will be some quaint
recollection of halcyon Hippie days are immediately dashed when
Young and Sampedro rev up their electric guitars.
Conversely, the listener is treated to an extended jam that
clocks in at over 27 minutes. Young’s lyrics are a stream of conscious
ramble touching on organized religion, the crap-tastic sound quality
of MP3s, the commodification of art, a “mantra” he bought for
35 bucks, and his sudden ambition to get a “hip hop haircut.”
Molina and Talbot’s rock solid foundation allow Young
and Sampedro’s guitars to spiral and pivot, weaving sweet and
sour riffs. Solos detonate like smart bombs between the verses.
This song is long but it never feels masturbatory.
Young offers up two versions of the title track. The
former is anchored by distorto guitar riffs, sandblasted vocals and
a tribal beat. The latter is sharp and pristine. The lyrics off up
a simple evocation of a carefree dancer… “The way she dances
makes my heart stand still, when she’s spinning in the sky/ Every
move is like a psychedelic pill from a doctor I can’t find.”
Cloaked in a countrified melody, “ Ramada Inn” vividly
paints a picture of marital ennui. A couple live out their days in
quiet desperation, loving each other but unable to communicate.
Tentative and emotionally distant, the tune is shot through with regret.
Two tracks pay homage to Young’s roots. “Born In
Ontario” is an affectionate ode to his home town. Chunky guitar chords
collide with an insistent backbeat. Young offers up this wry couplet:
“I was born in Ontario, that’s where I learned most of what I know/
‘Cause you don’t learn much when you start to get old.”
On “Twisted Road” Young acknowledges how peers
like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead influenced and inspired him
throughout the years. Piloted by shambolic guitar riffs, this warm-
hearted tune ambles along. Young perfectly summarizes his
creative process… “Brand new song with familiar chords, all the time
looking for something new.”
Other highlights on Psychedelic Pill include “She’s
Always Dancing” A swirling sonic maelstrom that celebrates the
girl we first met in the title track. And “For The Love Of Man,”
a tender and philosophical ballad that ponders life’s inequities.
The album closes with “Walk Like A Giant.” A whistled
refrain meanders through the melody. Young recalls his early
years as a Hippie activist, and how he watched the dream slip through
his fingers…”Me and some friends we were tryin’ to save the world/
It fell apart and it breaks my heart to see how close we came.”
Drums pound out a thundering tattoo, and guitars drench the track
in feedback. Through it all Young’s idealism never fades… “In the face
of failure, where there is love there is always hope.” The tune
concludes with four minutes of feedback and ambient noise.
Young and Crazy Horse strike a perfect balance on
Psychdelic Pill. His experimental edge and commercial instincts
co-exist in a kind of harmonic dissonance. It’s a lovely
symmetry. In Neil Young’s world this makes perfect sense.

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