Album Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – ‘Psychedelic Pill’

In the closing track – ‘Ambulance Blues’ – to his 1974 album On the Beach, Neil Young heaped scorn on nostalgia for “the old folky day”. Thirty-eight years on and Neil still has no plans to relive his prolific past. In Psychedelic Pill, however, the opening song ‘Driftin Back’ may for a moment convince you he’s picking the acoustic up to reel off another in a long list of melancholic standards. The twenty-seven minute (!) opener quickly morphs into a suitably psychedelic electric guitar marathon – trippy, hazy, distorted and sprawling – what else would you expect from such an album title? The murky tones of Neil’s primary axe, ‘Old Black’ – which itself has more charisma in its inanimate state than the average frontman – is occasionally interspersed with Neil Young’s quite bizarre lyrics.

For example, lyrics of how the quality of Mp3s leaves him dry only makes sense to the most ardent of Young followers. He also talks about Picasso; barely making sense at all. It all leaves the impression that he’s probably just improvising. Although I can’t help but admire his unrefined approach, some of the clichés do become testing as he hits celestial ground in ‘For the Love of Man’. The talk of Heaven and “the angels” who “ring the bell” do make me want to play his 1972 opus After the Gold Rush instead (perhaps the finest lyric sheet ever). It’s something rare in Neil Young’s oeuvre: cheesy.

‘Ramada Inn’ contains some of Young’s better lyrics on the album. A genuine romantic narrative may easily be deemed trite however, Young is, as ever, completely sincere. Likewise, a good ten minutes worth of hazy guitar fits appropriately within Neil Young’s idiosyncratic stylings. The minor key changes within the track are reminiscent of his 1969 classic ‘Cowgirl in the Sand’; another long but bewitching love song driven by his trusty backing band Crazy Horse.

The synthesis of Young and Crazy Horse again shows no less chemistry than when they rocked the seventies. Neil’s ethos has always been to capture the essence of the emotion he is trying to convey; if it’s too precisely played and produced then, for him, it may come across as cold and clinical. However, there’s being ‘unrefined’ and then there is deliberately coarsening the sound. For example, an attempt to make the title track seem more ‘trippy’ by cranking up the phaser guitar pedal ruins the song as if he were throwing oil on a Picasso.

Despite the occasional shortcomings in the odd song, and a few more chronic problems with the lyrics (although he has set a high standard for himself) Neil Young and Crazy Horse manage to play sprawling songs without ever lapsing into self-indulgence. He still, after a Niagara of recent album releases, has never suffered the typical creative lulls that many of his contemporary veteran artists have faced. However, will the particular album stand out among other recent Young albums? Will it demand further listens in the same way that, say, his 1979 masterpiece Rust Never Sleeps does? I’m never one to write off the Canadian genius, but I doubt it.

Jeremy Dobson


Jeremy is listening to Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city


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