Saturday, 8 December 2012

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill (Album Review 2012)

Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill

Some musicians stand the test of time and only come along once in a lifetime. And it's even more wonderful when you can share that lifetime with them. Canadian legend Neil Young, now well into his late sixties, is back with Crazy Horse - the brilliant Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank Sampedro, who sound like a combination seventeen-piece folk orchestra/rock skiffle group - for his thirty-fifth album. Arguably Young's best work has been his own: After The Goldrush, Harvest and more recently Prairie Wind, but his work with Crazy Horse remains the most engaging and interesting. From the début Everybody Knows This is Nowhere to the brilliant Sleeps With Angels to the audio-saga of Greendale, the collaboration is the perfect musical-marriage. After the straight-forward Americana earlier this year, Psychedelic Pill is particularly ambitious, but at the same time, as the music is built on improvisations and jam sessions, entirely obvious and expected. Consequently the album is an enormous triumphant mess.

With a running time of an hour and a half, the nine songs boast an opening song of twenty-seven minutes. Driftin' Back is part retrospective, part protest at the state of the music generation and the invasion of technology. Young treads a fine line here, trying to balance his own musical philosophy and life-vision with the inevitable rush of technological progress. Young's mournful 'improvised' verses (in which he declares his therapy is to 'write it in my book' - a reference to his recent memoirs) are exquisitely framed with swathes of trademark Crazy Horse instrumentation. As the song unfolds, Young drifts between calm alto-voiced serenity and frustrated anger - his listeners are only getting five percent of his music when they 'used to get it all'. An exaggerated, but well-made, point. The guitar-work and percussion shine as the song enters its final journey in the twenty-second minute and four minutes later Young returns with talk of getting a 'Hip-hop haircut' and paganism. Genius with a sense of humour.

If this mini-album opener wasn't enough, there are two sixteen minute songs on Psychedelic Pill. Ramada Inn is a dark tale of love and family with a superb opening four minutes. From here the guitars and Young's vocals get wilder and more unfocused, but no less engaging and effective. This is followed by a massive guitar-fuelled section before the big finish: "He loves her so, he does what he has to...She loves him so, she does what she needs to". The second epic, Walk Like A Giant is the continuation of what began in Driftin' Back, taking Psychedelic Pill full-circle (if you ignore the odd inclusion of a different version of the title track). Again this is more remonstrating on the present and yearning for the past: "We were gonna save the world, we were tryin' to make it better...but then the weather changed.." before the emotional "It breaks my heart...". There is real passion for music and life here. After more brilliant guitar-work, the song grinds to a shuddering halt for the last three minutes of industrial noise.

Within these gargantuans are more gems. Born In Ontario is a spirited tribute to Young's roots and proof he can still rock like the best of them, albeit a bit steadier these days. Likewise the heavy over-produced swirling title track is a decent pop song and For The Love Of Man is the album's only beautiful ballad - and a definitive highlight, proving that there are still two sides to Neil Young.

Psychedelic Pill is terrifically balanced between moments of intimate songwriting and huge wandering instrumental breaks. No other collaboration on Earth can do this, and do it so well.

-- CS

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