NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE – Psychedelic Pill

January 01, 1970



Was Americana a
feint or a misstep? Released scant months ago, the Neil Young/Crazy Horse
offering of 11 more-or-less roots/folk/gospel/patriotic standards (term used
loosely; included was “God Save the Queen” – not overtly a seminal slice of
“Americana” unless you extrapolate its role in the origins of “My Country, ‘Tis
of Thee”) that worked better on paper than on record. Well intentioned or not, and
regardless of its deployment of original arrangements and forgotten lyrics to
lend authenticity, it was a sloppy affair featuring half-assed singing and
self-conscious playing; that Neil and the gang more or less abandoned it as the
subsequent tour unfolded in favor of newer, unreleased songs speaks volumes
about the musicians’ own collective post-mortem. (Guitarist Frank Sampedro admitted
as much, telling an interviewer how with the exception
of “Jesus’ Chariot,” the material “just didn’t fit in… our soul and our hearts
aren’t in them.”)


Maybe the album was both. Because now we have Psychedelic Pill, a two-CD or pricey
triple-LP set boasting nearly an hour-and-a-half of new material, much of it
lengthy, jam-based numbers that left fans open-mouthed and slack-jawed during
the tour. And while Pill probably isn’t
destined to be held in the same regard as such stone ‘70s classics as Zuma or Rust Never Sleeps (and its concert counterpart Live Rust), it’s easily as tunefully unhinged as 1990’s Ragged Glory and as sonically immediate
as 1994’s Sleeps With Angels; it’s as
pure a distillation of the band as one could hope for in 2012. To heck with Americana; Neil
Young & Crazy Horse are, by
definition, “Americana.”


The record begins oddly. For the first minute or so,
“Driftin’ Back” seems like it’s going to play out like an acoustic opening
track, setting the listener up for what’s to come, only to abruptly segue – with itself – into an electric riffer
that subsequently runs for nearly a half hour. The effect is like walking from
the front room of a club where a singer-songwriter is performing to the larger
room in the rear where a band is jamming. From there, Psychedelic Pill is essentially a full-on affair: the droning,
druggy, brutally phased title track; the heavy elegance of the “Cortez The
Killer”-like “Ramada Inn”; the soaring, “Like a Hurricane”-esque twang that
powers “She’s Always Dancing”; the 16-minute lumbering maelstrom of “Walk Like
A Giant,” which also channels Young ghosts from the past (among them,
“Tonight’s The Night,” “Rockin’ in the Free World” and “My My Hey Hey”) while
boasting a singular urgency in its acknowledgement that life, though fleeting,
should be celebrated in the here and now (it also details Young’s grudging realization that a lot of the ideals he held close in the ’60s are dead). The latter track, in fact, is
casually magnificent, joining the roster of patented NY&CH anthems that
fans live for.


It must be noted, that even though Young appears to have
recharged his rock mojo by diving back into his Crazy Horseman huddle – if
you’ve ever seen the combo in concert, you know what the Young-Sampedro-Billy Talbot
“huddle” in front of Ralph Molina’s drums looks like – he remains lyrically
becalmed. More than one pundit has commented on the songwriter’s downward slide
into mawkish sentimentality and just plain awkward phrasing that’s marked much
of his material starting around the turn of the millennium with Silver & Gold, and Psychedelic Pill is only intermittently
redeemed (e.g., the existential “Walk Like A Giant”). “Twisted Road,” for
example, despite its good intentions as a tribute to some of Young’s heroes
(Dylan, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, the Grateful Dead) is undercut by it clichéd
literalness: “Walkin’ with the Devil on a
twisted road/ Listenin’ to the Dead on the radio/ That old time music used to
soothe my soul/ If I ever get home I’m gonna let the good times roll.”
Lines like that might be okay for a C-list blues band on a Saturday night after
about 10 beers, but not for the man who wrote “After the Gold Rush.” Ditto with
“Driftin’ Back,” which unless you are partial to phrases like “I used to dig
Picasso,” “blockin’ out my anger” and “gonna get a hip-hop haircut” and take them
as grand irony instead of cranky complaining, succeeds purely on the extended,
trance-inducing riffage the band serves up during the marathon number.


Which, to be honest, is also the reason Psychedelic Pill succeeds: sonically speaking, it’s a monster,
coursing with primal ferocity and sending wave upon wave of le noise directly at your gut. When Neil
Young gets together with Crazy Horse, a chemical reaction takes place that many
would-be junior alchemists have tried to replicate but consistently failed at. It’s
one of the most satisfying sounds in rock ‘n’ roll, something Young obviously
tuned into very early on and continues to cherish to this day – as much a feeling as a sound, in fact. Dr. Young and his staff have your prescription ready to refill, kids. Take a dose, get plenty
of rest, and you’ll feel a lot better in the morning.


Like A Giant,” “Psychedelic Pill,” “Ramada Inn” -FRED MILLS

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