A disclaimer: I owe a debt of gratitude to Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
Years ago, in the middle of the musical abyss known as the Metal Years (an obligatory rite of passage for just about every young person in my native Finland), I had a chance encounter with one of their tunes: ‘Mansion on the Hill‘ off Ragged Glory (1990). What a song and, especially, what a sound. To begin with, a fuzz-coated guitar tone so gleefully battered and yet thrillingly alive that it appeared to be transmitting from an entirely different, groovier universe. In came the beat: huge, primitive, simultaneously monumentally powerful and forever teetering on the brink of total collapse. Next stop, the singing: a high-pitched whine faintly resembling a farmyard cat meowing on the barn rooftop, soon to be joined by gruff yet heaven-bound harmonies. It packed plenty of aggression, but also what could only be described as good vibes. It was a gazillion miles removed from the chest-beating mock-angst of Metal I’d grown up with. I was instantly hooked.
Sadly, that glorious racket hasn’t been heard much since. Even the most rewarding of Young’s recent, Horse-less clutch of albums (2010’s Le Noise, 2007’s Chrome Dreams II) have carried a whiff of waning inspiration, suggesting that the famous corrosion referred to in the title of 1979 classic Rust Never Sleeps is finally settling in. Young’s first proper collaboration with the full Crazy Horse line-up since 1996 (Americana, a half-cooked collection of traditional folk cuts released earlier this year, doesn’t count), Psychedelic Pill presents a long-overdue return to the strike-rate of Young’s late-’80s to mid-’90s comeback as the “Godfather of Grunge”.
That said, whilst you certainly don’t have to be a Neil Young fanatic to appreciate Psychedelic Pill, some familiarity with the 67-year old songwriter’s eccentricities might help in getting acquainted. Contrary as ever, Young frontloads his most compelling album for half an eternity with material that appears designed to scare off any curious newcomers. Kicking off with a wistful acoustic intro that is soon trampled under an elemental Crazy Horse groove, ‘Driftin’ Back’ is a powerful, hypnotic statement of intent. At 28 minutes (yes, really), it’s also drawn out to such exhaustive and exhausting dimensions that only a proper Horse fiend could possibly argue that every single second of it is entirely justified. The hugely appealing garage rock stomp of the title track, meanwhile, is defaced by an acutely annoying phasing effect (thankfully, an unharmed version of the track rescues it from the scrap heap).
Accept the occasional spot of self-indulgence, and you’ll soon discoverer just how intense, inspired and energised Psychedelic Pill sounds. It’s probably not a coincidence that Young’s last killer album (1994’s murky, underrated Sleeps with Angels) also featured the trio who’ve made an appearance on most of his best records since debuting on 1969′s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. Young’s said he only returns to Crazy Horse when he feels that the band’s up to it. On this evidence, it could well be the other way around: rhythm guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina only leave the stable once Young’s got the tunes to justify their presence.
This time, there are no problems in that department. The shorter cuts – the charming country rock of ‘Born in Ontario’, ‘Twisted Road‘s nostalgic tip of the hat to Dylan, Orbison and the Dead – hit the mark, but it’s the epic workouts that truly convince. Granted, some of lyrics to the 16-minute (Young and co. make a habit of misplacing the stopwatch on this double album) closer ‘Walk Like A Giant’ – a backwards-gazing look at the dismantling of the hippie dream, thematically aligned with the musings in Young’s recent autobiography Waging Heavy Peace, as are many of the other cuts here – seem half-formed. By the time the hulking 16-minute epic gallops into the concluding segment – during which Young’s long-suffering guitar, having just performed a convincing impression of the blood-curdling sounds some wounded primeval beast floating over a ruined landscape might emit, starts drilling towards the molten core of the earth accompanied by a series of startling explosions that finish off with a coda of clanging noise that bears more resemblance to the output of out-there noise artists than arena-straddling rock legends, the guitar’s violent grunts voicing all the frustration and anger the words can’t quite get across – you’re too tangled up in what Young’s putting his instrument through, and the ability of the band to follow him intuitively through the track’s erratic peaks and troughs, to really care.
Decorated with similarly colossal solos which marry brutal force with flights of lyrical beauty, ‘Ramada Inn‘s tender, sad yet warily hopeful portrait of a long-term relationship rocked by heavy boozing might well be Young’s most heartfelt song for nigh-on 20 years. A mere sketch in comparison at only 9 minutes, ‘She’s Always Dancing’, an up-tempo jam (well, up-tempo for the Horse) framed by some sweet, hazy harmonies, could be Psychedelic Pill‘s strongest moment musically; it’s barely believable that veterans pushing 70 can cook up a performance – simultaneously ethereally mournful and pulsating with raw power – quite like this. Critics have accused Crazy Horse of plodding, but this track – and the rest of this remarkable album – proves that what they in fact do is soar… only slowly.