Like many of his contemporaries, Neil Young will forever be associated with the 1960s. On Psychedelic Pill, he joins together with Crazy Horse to construct a fiery requiem for the decade, and to chart a path away from its crushing disappointments.
He begins, I think brilliantly, at the end: “Driftin’ Back,” a staggering epitaph for the 1960s, also intrigues because it’s initially presented as an utterly offbeat, pastoral reverie — something that’s maybe as far away as you can get from the familiar garage-rock glories of Crazy Hose. Young, instead, is floating for a time, feather-like, over what appears to be his own jagged personal history.
Then, as the song moves into a shared vocal for the chorus, Crazy Horse finally comes charging forward, and their ass-whipping feedback and skull-dragging rhythms blow apart whatever sense of twilit reverie remains. “Driftin’ Back” surges into a broiling, rough-hewn instrumental segment and when the lyric returns, there is a new edge to Young’s thoughts.
He launches into a more direct accounting of how the broader goals from the ’60s ran aground. Religious leaders are revealed as charlatans, artists are turned into greeting-card product. Crazy Horse again offers its own thunderous musical retort, completing the transformation of “Driftin’ Back” from a moment tinged with regret into a song completely engulfed by thunderous anger. Twenty minutes into this nearly half-hour opus, Young then makes it clear that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg: “When you hear my song now, you only get five percent … Blocking out my anger now, blocking out my thoughts.” From there, this round-house raging against the dying of the light ensues. Even as “Driftin’ Back” seems to slow, a titanic interlocking exchange of guitar with Frank “Poncho” Sampedro renders that anger viscerally real. Young makes one last pass at the chorus, but he sounds spent, almost at a loss for words, so draining has this journey been.
By the end, “Driftin’ Back” has equaled and, in some cases, surpassed so many of the songs that seek to contextualize the 1960s. I’m not sure anyone has better illustrated the impotent fury that followed for those who worked so hard toward change, only to see it all come to such a thudding conclusion.
The album might have ended right there, if Psychedelic Pill — due October 29, 2012, from Reprise Records — were sequenced differently, if it only sought to look back. Instead, we’re hurtled directly into Ralph Molina’s grinding, “Cinnamon Girl”-style groove over the album’s good-time title track, and Crazy Horse is granted a chance to do what it does best — to recall every one of its earlier, floor board-rearranging triumphs with Young. Meanwhile, the 17-minute “Ramada Inn” and the 8-minute “She’s Always Dancing,” at their heart, seem like the kind of resilient, third-act love songs that could have found a home on Young’s acoustic Harvest projects, but they’re imbued here with a boisterous moral authority that’s become a patented element of these collaborations.
If “Born in Ontario” is not much more than a throwaway saloon song, all is forgiven by the time Young’s offered a gnarled tribute to musical confederates like Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead on “Twisted Road” — and a quiet, deeply connective call for basic human empathy during “For the Love of Man.” In his way, Young ends up reconstructing the soaring promise, and the boundless joy, of the decade he started out eulogizing here.
Finally, there’s the grungy 16 minute-plus “Walk Like a Giant,” which connects Psychedelic Pill back to its opening track’s torrent of emotion, and does so again without even a hint of romanticism about what came before: “Me and some of my friends, we were going to save the world — we were trying to make it better,” Young sings, before tearing that nostalgic notion to shreds: “But then the weather changed … and it fell apart. And it breaks my heart.”
Young, and Crazy Horse, keep going, though. After all of the years, all of the disappointments, all of the triumphs and the dead ends, they keep going. “I try to hold on to my thinking,” Young sings, as much to himself it seems as to us, “and to remember how it felt.”
His old friends, meanwhile, are constructing this bloody-knuckled storm of rock ‘n’ roll noise behind him, the very personification of the 1960s’ horizon-less sense of freedom. And you’re reminded all over again: It must have felt just like this.
Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Neil Young. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE – AMERICANA (2012): Not having to write songs, not having to pay hardly anyone to play theirs and performing in the rough-and-ready style they’ve been doing since 1969, this must have been one of the cheapest and easiest records to make; it could have been brainstormed during breakfast and in the can before dinner. That’s part of the draw of NY/CH; they still hand make rock without any of the frills and all the immediacy, and that formula doesn’t change for Americana. The actual product does mostly conform to what you’d think it would sound like, with the majority of the tracks just a few chord changes away from being “Cinnamon Girl,” “Down By The River” or “Cowgirl In The Sand.” There are a few surprises, though, and it has to do not with how the songs are played, but how they’re re-harmonized, sometimes nearly to the point of being unrecognizable.
NEIL YOUNG – LE NOISE (2010): Even after a damaging season of loss, Neil Young remains, as always, restless and relentless — imbuing the modernistic, reverb-soaked Le Noise with a kind of anti-melancholy. He hasn’t stopped searching for light in the darkness and, even now, somehow never sounds quite the same from album to album. This time, Young partners with producer Daniel Lanois, recording alone with his guitar in an atmosphere that sounds nothing like the typical unplugged session. There’s no Stills, no Crosby or Nash and no Crazy Horse. Instead, this textured, live-sounding project finds a place in between Young’s acoustic work and his more muscular full-band rock music.
NEIL YOUNG – LIVE AT MASSEY HALL 1971 (2007): A showcase for Young and his songwriting at an early career peak. Played on acoustic guitar and sometimes piano, Young definitely had that audience in full control. Many of the songs, new at the time, went on to become part of his classic Harvest LP. It’s a fine album. The content of the songs is cranked up quite a bit with this intimate setting. There may be no Crazy Horse sonic heaviness on “Cowgirl In The Sand,” but the emotional directness of the setting more than makes up for it.
NEIL YOUNG AND CRAZY HORSE – GREENDALE (2003): Which Neil Young do we get this time around? That’s always the question. The blistering rocker? The introspective folkie? Rockabilly Neil? Blues Neil? Techno synthy Neil? (OK, that might be going a little too far…nobody is expecting Trans II anytime soon.) It’s not that any of this is a bad thing. For a guy who’s been at it as long as Neil Young, the occasional fresh perspective can only be healthy. On Greendale, we get a return to Crazy Horse slow-rocker Neil with touches of the introspective folkie. Ddespite the delivery, it’s pretty obvious that folkie-Neil wrote these tunes.