Neil Young, with Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2012)

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.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Nils Lofgren stops by for an emotional talk about his time with Neil Young, Crazy Horse and Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.]

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.

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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.

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • JC Mosquito

    Interesting perspective here in this review. My feeling is that the 1960s are starting to be too far away to eulogize with any sense of focus and detail. A comment like “It must have felt just like this” is maybe is more accurately rephrased as “We’ve come to believe that it must have felt just like this. Let’s hope so, because if it didn’t, we can never hope it might one day come around like that again.”

    So, for those of you who consider yourself part of the Woodstock generation – don’t forget your standing orders from the gathering of the tribes: “Never trust anyone under 35.”

    • http://www.somethingelsereviews.com Nick DeRiso

      In as much as the 1960s have become an idea rather than a concrete thing, I agree. And I think that’s what I heard here — someone trying to regain that idea, but to approach it without nostalgia, without the easy nomenclature that’s grown up around the decade’s myth. Neil Young has always had a hard-eyed way of looking back, and it serves him very well here.

  • JC Mosquito

    For sure – “a hard-eyed way of looking back” is about as accurate a description of Neil as one can get in ten words or less. So, as usual, I guess it’s just gonna have to be another album on the “to buy” list. And now I’m gonna have to track down a ticket for when he comes through town later this year………… it’s always something.

  • Jeff

    A dream can live as long as it’s still dreamed. Apparently the people of the ’60s were so disappointed to find that realizing their dream would turn out to be a long hard slog that required at least some planning and that it wouldn’t just fall into their lap that they (mostly) gave up on it. (And they wonder why everyone else is sore at them.) Then the Reagan “return to melody” and the punk anti-dream rushed into the vacuum created–both of them the wrong response to the times, if you ask me, which of course puts me at odds with most of rock history.

    Of course, there’s another way to look at all this. I’m essentially a ’70s person, which is a way of saying “too young to be a ’60s person *per se*, but someone transformed by what was going on at the time”. Things did take a step or three forward, but instead of taking heart at real progress there seemed to be only disappointment. And then the ’70s people themselves (along with the ’60s people) got distracted by “growing up”. We keep learning all the wrong lessons from the ’60s, it seems–and time’s running out. The sooner we ditch this Old Is The New New business, the better.

    Of course, all this is ultimately tangential to the music, and I’ve only heard the snippet above, which is OK–fine if you like NY/CH, I guess.