Psychedelic Pill: Neil Young Has Never Sounded Better

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Nov. 1 2012 3:35 AM

Old Man

Neil Young takes a look at his life on his new album, Psychedelic Pill.

Musician Neil Young.
Neil Young performs in February in Los Angeles.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images For the Recording Academy.

For its first 1 minute and 18 seconds, Psychedelic Pill is a Neil Young solo album. An acoustic guitar fumblingly plucked, some rustic shuffles and thumping sounds, and then that man-in-the-moon voice— “Hey now now, hey now now ...”—ageless, weightless, half-absent but pregnant somehow with universal tristesse. He strums on blurrily, blurs on strummingly, in a lyrical haze. “I’m driftin’ back ...  Dreamin’ ‘bout the way things sound now ... Write about them in my book ...” Wait—what? Oh yeah. He does write about them in his book. In his crazy, woolly, just-published memoir Waging Heavy Peace he writes about MP3s, deploring their crappiness and lossiness and their disgusting effect upon the mind of a young person, and pitches heavily for Puretone (now called Pono) his new hi-quality audio service with accompanying portable players. So this is cross-platform Neil, spacey-conversational, ramblingly boosting his tech-product and synergizing with his book-product. Other voices join him, old friendly voices, harmonizing: “I’m driftin’ baa-aack ...” Still we float, pleasantly enough. Nice to be here in Neil Young chordal limbo. And then, at 1:18, with splashes and metallic hoots and a grinding deceleration in tempo, the band arrives. Oh Lord. It’s Crazy Horse.

There are pages and pages about these guys in Waging Heavy Peace: his Crazy Horse, his hobbyhorse, his hobgoblin crew of semi-competents. “You see, they are my window to the cosmic world. ... Just getting there is the key thing, and Crazy Horse is my way of getting there.” Neil Young needs Crazy Horse. He needs the band’s rusty electricity, its slackness and its sag, and its lumpy-browed readiness to follow him deep into the guitar-caverns. He needs Ralph Molina on the drums, his tenuous compact with rhythm renewed unsteadily at every upbeat; he needs Billy Talbot’s bass going dunk-dunk-dunk; he needs the ambient friction of Ralph “Poncho” Sampedro, grating away semi-audibly on second guitar. Part of it is sonic camaraderie, but there’s something else, too. Neil Young’s long marriage to Crazy Horse is his continuing living sermon on creativity—how you have to find the muse where she lives, not where you live. And if she selects for you a backing band that sounds like its members are all wearing gardening gloves, then boy, that backing band you must use. For the next 40 years.

And with commitment come rewards, profound endowments of energy and focus. You can hear it all the way through Psychedelic Pill. As is generally the case when Crazy Horse is involved, composition is not the thing: nothing flashy here, just laundry-rack song structures and determinedly half-assed lyrics for the doggerel playing of the band. “I might make it up to Detroit City/ Where people work hard and life is pretty,” he sings, slightly unforgivably, in a number called “Born In Ontario.” The title track even reprises—accidentally?— the horrible introductory chords of “Sign of Love” from 2010’s Le Noise. But this is what inspiration looks like for Neil Young in 2012, and as soon he starts soloing it all makes sense. Loops and lurches, guttural conversations with his amp; noise-collapses; gorgeous isolate notes, dragged and spangled across the clumsy-beautiful phrasings of Crazy Horse; frazzled wisdom in a palace of reverb; he sounds amazing. The jams are long—10 minutes, 15 minutes... “Driftin’ Back” churns resplendently through 20 extraordinary minutes of improvisation. Crazy Horse keeps going, keep going, it’s what they do, gouging out pockets of possibility for their leader. Bump-bada-bump-bump-bump go the fills of Ralph Molina; Billy Talbot prods at the bassline, never quite convinced; but it works. As they follow Neil Young, so he follows his higher directive, adjusting the current of his guitar to its necessities.

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“There seems to be no end to the information flowing through me,” he writes in Waging Heavy Peace, a book which uses the reader’s head like a cheap effects pedal. As Neil Young gets older, he gets wilder: This is the lesson. The brain degrades (Waging Heavy Peace is very direct about this), bits fall off, words fail him, his memory’s on the fritz, and we get closer and closer to a core of radiant noise. “Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “Little Gidding”, the last of his Four Quartets. He was being sarcastic. (“First, the cold friction of expiring sense ...”) But Young’s old age is humming with genuine gifts, whether we’re traveling the kinks and whorls of his gray matter with Waging Heavy Peace or surrendering to the charred bass-tones of his guitar on this new album. Psychedelic Pill’s 17-minute “Ramada Inn”, which features some of his best playing ever—yes, ever—is about a long, long love, a long faithfulness, something splendid offered on the altar of Time. “And every morning comes the sun,” sing the veteran voices of Crazy Horse, “And they both rise into the day/ Holding on to what they’ve done ...” The melody hangs there, and then “He loves her so,” answers Neil Young, singing alone. “He loves her so/ He loves her so/ He does what he has to.”

James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.

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