Every heritage artist has that album that the critics herald as their ‘return to form’. This one actually delivers.
8.2 / 10.0
The critical community did a fair amount of bellyaching earlier this year with the release of the highly anticipated reunion between Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Americana. When that collection of American traditional interpretations was released earlier this year, it was flayed by critics on contact. While I was not great defender of that record, I certainly didn’t think it was as big of a mess as these writers were suggesting. Now, with the release of Psychedelic Pill, that album only makes more sense in retrospect. Americana was the warm up; these old hats simply getting their sea legs back. Regardless of your opinion of that first record, Psychedelic Pill makes it all worth it. While it seems like every artist has that album that critics all hail as their return to former greatness. In the case of this new album, I believe the ‘return to form’ tag actually fits. Not just because it was intended that way, but because the inspiration present on this songwriting is the best I’ve heard from Young since 1990’s Ragged Glory.
At 87 minutes, Psychedelic Pill is Neil Young’s longest album and only studio album to span two discs. Many of the songs on the album came out of extended jam sessions with Crazy Horse after Americana was recorded. The opening track “Driftin’ Back” makes references to Young’s new memoir Waging Heavy Peace and his disdain for MP3s in between extended jamming. From the first notes of this 27 minute song, it is clear that Young is going directly after the sound that made this band famous. The song structure is reminiscent of Young’s unique story arcs, present from his earliest days in Buffalo Springfield. Couple with that the amazing use of studio effects, like the early fade from acoustic to electric guitar or vocal harmony loops, and heavy use of negative space and you have the DNA of Young’s very best work. Somehow, Neil Young is one of the only guitarists that can play is if he’s still deciding on the next note and still make it interesting.
As with much of Young’s latter-day work, the material on Psychedelic Pill is primarily focused on the passing of time. Another of the album’s epic tracks, “Walk Like a Giant” laments how his generation was unable to change the world (“We were ready to save the world / But then the weather changed.”) Elsewhere on the album he recalls listening to Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and The Grateful Dead on the radio (“Twisted Road”), and his Canadian roots (“Born in Ontario”). The lyrical content makes the primary difference here between Psychedelic Pill and Young’s earlier work with Crazy Horse. These songs are much more direct and autobiographical than surreal epics like “Down By The River” or “Cortez the Killer”. The musical ties with those songs remain however as it is hard to finish the track “She’s Always Dancin'” without convincing yourself that you are actually listening to Zuma. That is thanks, in the largest part, to the lead guitar work by Young. The loud crunching sound decried on Americana is kept at bay throughout by that guitar, without sacrificing the sharper edges.
In truth, I found it hard to believe at first that the same man who made Silver & Gold or Le Noise was responsible for Psychedelic Pill. This is a record that completely takes the listener by surprise and captivates throughout. Though this is Young’s longest record, it is also one of the most pleasant listens he’s made during my lifetime. Young walks the line between paying salute to his earlier work without becoming a slave to it perfectly, putting to shame not only his contemporaries like Dylan and Springsteen, but modern artists as well. The San Francisco Neo-Psychedelic rock scene could learn a lot from what Neil Young is doing on Psychedelic Pill. By utilizing some patience with his songwriting, he builds a lot of dynamics into the album that those bands typically weigh down with feedback. I don’t recommend Psychedelic Pill as an album you should listen to because you want to remember old times. This is an album you need to listen to because it is fucking good. Period.
“Born In Ontario”
“She’s Always Dancin'”
Purchase Neil Young’s Psychedelic Pill