by / November 23rd, 2012 /

Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

 1/5 Rating

(Reprise)

Some notes towards an understanding of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s new album, Psychedelic Pill, his 35th studio record…

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It’s a double, and a long one, nudging the hour and a half mark. Some will say, too long.
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It’s got some very long songs on it, as well. Of the eight tracks plus one bonus track, one exceeds 27 minutes, while two others break the 16 minute mark. Some will say, too long.
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It enjoys some sort of reflexive relationship with Young’s just-published memoir, Waging Heavy Peace. References to the writing of said tome are contained in opener, ‘Driftin’ Back’.
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At first listen, it seems doubtful if ‘Driftin’ Back’ justifies its 27 plus minute length. This is where the inevitable dismissals as self-indulgent will be most intensely directed.
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It is certainly true that one expects more lyrical engagement from Neil Young, than the series of half-baked, disjointed, random and repetitious observations assembled here. Maybe he is wise to this provisionality, however, and maybe it is even intentional. In the last verse, the bizarre throwaway ‘Gonna get me a hip hop haircut’ is followed by ‘Can’t get me no resolution’.
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Besides, he has never been as lyrically involving – nor as sometimes obfuscatory – as Dylan, for example. Young’s songs tend to revolve around a handful of strong, crystalline images, rather than immersing themselves in an overwhelming labyrinth. Of course, Dylan is vast, he contains multitudes, his house has many mansions: Dylan can, and has, written like Young: Young can’t really write like Dylan. But maybe that’s his virtue. Being less of a virtuoso wordsmith (in comparison), he can betimes appear more authentic – seeming inarticulacy being the badge of sincerity.
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In the song’s lyric, Young expresses his distaste for the compression of the MP3 format: “when you hear my song now/You only get 5%/You used to get it all now/ You used to feel it all”. Reference is also made to being ripped off by the maharishi. Neil also informs us that he “used to dig Picasso, until the big Tech giant came along/And turned him into wallpaper”. Maybe Young too is worried about being turned into wallpaper. On the other hand, is what ‘The Man’ does retrospectively to Picasso really a good reason to stop liking Picasso?
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As odd and obtuse as ‘Driftin’ Back’ may initially appear, what’s odder still, and more obtuse, is how on subsequent listenings it becomes far less irritating and far more comforting. The call-back echos of ‘Hey, hey, my, my’ in ‘hey, hey, now, now, now’ all through, but most prominently at the beginning and end, are a help here, as is the gently rocking (as in rocking chair) metronomic beat, redeemed from soft-centredness by the trademark chuggy, trebly guitar work of Crazy Horse. The first line, after all, is ‘Dreamin’ bout the way things sound now’, and there are declarations throughout about ‘blockin’ out all my thoughts’. Perhaps the whole thing is a waking sleep reverie, fragments from half-remembered dreams. Plus, whatever about the merits of brevity and minimalism, in another sense, any song could, theoretically, go on forever. In many ways, with the problems and curve balls it throws down, this prolonged intro functions as a synecdoche for the entire album.
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The more succinct title track is much more obviously fun and, with its cool if clichéd sonic effects of phasing and strafing, the most psychedelic Psychedelic Pill gets. The bonus track is a straight version of the song, without any speaker panning.
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‘Ramada Inn’ concerns a long marriage marred by alcoholism. Young recently gave up booze, and weed, for health reasons, the first time he has given up both at the same time. He has written, elsewhere, of feeling less inspired since doing so.
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‘Born In Ontario’ is a jaunty country vibe, with obvious sentiments.
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‘Twisted Road’ is another cool reminiscence, with shout-outs to Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, Roy Orbison, and The Grateful Dead. Perhaps by referencing The Dead (and Dylan), Young is implicitly arguing that he should be let go on as long as he wants, when he wants. It’s not like there aren’t any precedents.
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‘She’s Always Dancing’ is a more extended and thoughtful treatment of the ‘Party Girl’ who appears in the title track. It openly recalls ‘Cinnamon Girl’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘When you Dance you Can Really Love’. Dancing girls are a bit of a recurring motif for our Neil.
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‘For The Love Of Man’ is an old song, previously unreleased, reworked here, in which Young tries to reconcile himself with the fact of his son Ben being born with cerebral palsy. It would not be out of place on the Heart Of Gold concert DVD, which is no bad thing.
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‘Walk Like A Giant’ is the best cut on the album, the key to the rest, and what makes it all worthwhile. Like many songs from another long and eccentric Young album, 2003’s Greendale, it deals with the end of the hippie dream of changing the world for the better, of how it is heartbreaking ‘To think about how close we came’. It also broaches what became of that generation, and how such ideals may survive, less flamboyantly, in small pockets. It features a whistled melody, a bit of doo-wop backing, and some good, old-fashioned, loud, aggressive guitar-soloing. Those clumping and thumping (and yes, prolonged and extended) dying falls at the end sound like a giant walking. Fee-Fie-Foe-Fum, indeed.
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Psychedelic Pill will probably polarize opinion, a real love-it-or-loathe-it job. Much of this will be predicated on whether or not people are Neil Young fans in the first place. But, as Wilde told us, ‘When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.’ Neil Young has never much cared about what other people thought about his work. Such an attitude has undoubtedly contributed to getting him to where he is today.
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So not a bad album at all. In fact, it’s pretty damn good. One suspects it will be a grower. Stop taking the obvious route of quibbling about boring old hippie curmudgeonly self-indulgence, sit back and let it happen to you.

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