Album Review: Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Steve Buttercase 10 December 2012

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Neil Young is one of music’s great chameleons although that metaphor hardly does him justice…after all that particular species of lizard uses its ability to change its appearance primarily for defence whereas Young is just as likely to use it to go on the offensive. Those who have followed his career know this and sometimes you need to hang on tight!

So when faced with a new album, and one that is reuniting the great troubadour with his legendary band Crazy Horse, I was not sure what to think. Would Neil be trawling old oceans for the last few fish? Cashing in on the old stuff with a sad pastiche of his glory years?

I needn’t have worried.

These days of downloads and digitalisation have changed some of the rules of music. That is a given. An album used to be more than a collection of songs. It might have a theme, a structure, building to a great climax and then slipping back to a state of reflective understanding. Neil Young defined this in his time.

The first track of this album keeps to that tradition and reveals exactly what is going on in the great man’s mind. It starts with an infectious little melody and feel that could easily have appeared on the Harvest Moon album… light acoustic strumming and plaintive vocals. Its title, “Driftin’ Back” is the not just straight to the point – it’s the whole point. Neil Young is recapturing the old way of working, dusting off his old self, re-igniting the fire in his belly with an album that has been organically created as a bitter statement that riles against what he perceives music has become – a false replica, a shadow of its former self.

He remonstrates against MP3s and digital format and against the new music media generally. Oh, and just so you can check for hypocrisy and measure his integrity, it is honourably intact…the whole album was recorded analogue onto tape and only transferred to digital at the last moment. The result is a revelation that reminds me of the first time I heard the John Mayall Bluesbreakers album in its original mono.

I immediately noticed the drum sound particularly, it rattles and shifts around the main driving groove, in and out of time – no tempo correction, no synths, no autotune – just playing…and the result uplifts the soul!

“Driftin Back” is 27 minutes long and whilst it doesn’t entirely avoid slipping into an over long jam at times (very few), it has the advantage of a perfect Neil Young melody and that voice to drag it back where it belongs. The title refrain is hauntingly beautiful and just contrasts perfectly with the gritty warmth of the instruments, all of which sound fantastic and truly authentic.

On the next track we start with a Flanger – yes a Flanger – this is the album’s title track “Psychedelic Pill” and a song that rocks out so hard it would have sounded fine live on “Rust Never Sleeps”…a cracker that will satisfy everyone, but especially the hard core fans. Catchy chorus coupled with a great riff? There’s no one better.

“Ramada Inn” is another riffing rock-fest that at times even hints at early REM. Again nothing is compromised – you find yourself realising that is has been a long time since you heard a song really grow and build at such a polite gentle pace. The stereo swirls about imperfectly and there are MISTAKES (yes real ones!) and I love that more than anything about this album. It is totally, one hundred per cent honest.

Born in Ontario has a hint of “Southern Man” and could have been Young’s last word to “Sweet Home Alabama”…but it isn’t. What it is however is a very good song which ends Side One or rather CD 1.

Incredibly CD2 just takes it up another notch, beginning with the sublime “Twisted Road”, an absolute peach of a Neil Young song that reminds me of “The Band” at times. Superb.

“She’s Always Dancing” also hit me very hard with the way it crept up through some beautifully intricate introductory harmonies, tantalisingly – like the object of your love dancing in front of you, just out of reach. It was absolutely beautiful first time and has only got better with each listen.

“For The Love Of Man” is another triumph, incredibly (this is almost a perfect album, it really is). It’s contemplative, soulful Young with that heart-breaking yearning quality that sounds so plaintive on bad days. Biting social comment always tends to wound much more deeply when sung so softly and beautifully.

I could be forgiven for tiring by now – 70 minutes in! – but I am served up with “Walk Like A Giant” another great song which meanders to the front of the stage with the self assurance that’s shared by the whole album. This is “Down By The River” writ larger and more confidently by a man with nothing to prove but still a lot to say. It is marvellous and my favourite track on the album.

So what can I say? This album is a triumph, a hugely relevant social commentary, a masterpiece of understated brilliance. Neil Young has surpassed himself throughout and if you don’t buy it on 180g vinyl then you have missed the point!

Steve Buttercase