It begins, as many Neil Young albums have done, with the wistful strum of an acoustic guitar and the faint glow of nostalgia. This, however, at least in part proves to be deceptive, as the heroic rumble of Crazy Horse fades in, gloriously out of time with the vocal harmonies. Quickly, we have moved from the barnyard of Harvest to the cliff face of Rust Never Sleeps or Ragged Glory.
This song, Driftin’ Back, then chugs along in a manner both regal and disorientated, for a further 26 minutes, surely a test of will for even those fans most tolerant of Neil Young’s indulgences. On the plus side, its musical bite and charge provide a timely reminder of just how big an influence the Crazy Horse sound was on Nirvana and many others. It’s an immediately welcome return from an ensemble that, until this year’s brilliant collection of reconstructed folk songs Americana, had not recorded together in the studio since 1996’s underrated Broken Arrow. Typically, Young blazes on the guitar, whilst the band sound simultaneously relentless but also slightly drunk, the tempo characteristically woozy. For a while, they adhere to some kind of form, but at various points it meanders into a beautifully haphazard, directionless jam.
Lyrically, however, it is a collage of absolute nonsense that finds Young parodying Dire Straits (“don’t want my mp3”) and threatening to “get a hip-hop haircut”. Ludicrously, he concludes by professing he might be a “pagan”. “Write it in my book,” he sings repeatedly. On this evidence, Young’s autobiography Waging Heavy Peace will be a somewhat uncomfortable read. It’s sadly not the only time here that Young is in dire need of an editor. Young has never been the most sophisticated of wordsmiths, but where his simplicity sometimes leads to a touching directness, it can also lead to clumsiness. Much the same can be said of Born In Ontario, a likeably jaunty shuffle which suffers from some very poor rhyming couplets.
That being said, there’s a good deal more to like on Psychedelic Pill than on any Young album since perhaps as long ago as Sleeps With Angels. Perhaps this is just because there’s so much of it, stretched as it is across two discs. There’s the burning, insistent title track, a close cousin to Ragged Glory’s F*!#in Up or to Cinnamon Girl, that appears in two versions, one mix sounding like the whole thing has been fed through a giant flanger. It’s slight, but riveting. Then there are what can only be described as the two best songs Young has recorded in years, both of which make a brilliant virtue of Crazy Horse’s sturdy, unforgiving chug. Walk Like A Giant finds Young at his most strident and excoriating on the guitar (something that sits oddly with the infectious whistled melody), even if its lyrics hint at humanity’s apparent inability to respect the environment. Its brutal, quasi-industrial coda would not have sounded out of place on the recent Swans album. Ramada Inn, meanwhile, at 16 minutes another epic, alternates between Young’s explosive guitar theatrics and some beautiful, tender words about a severely strained relationship (the kids have fled the nest and alcoholism has set in). It’s Young at his very best – candid, touching and mesmerising at great length.
This would not be a Neil Young album without some moments of sentimentality – and this comes with the nostalgic Twisted Road and the fluffy For The Love Of Man, both of which are tolerable. Twisted Road may hail the virtues of Bob Dylan‘s Like A Rolling Stone and Roy Orbison, but it’s actually The Band’s classic The Weight that it most transparently resembles (with a touch of Young’s own Ohio thrown in). For The Love Of Man is affecting, if not particularly nuanced, and benefits from one of Young’s most delicate, restrained arrangements, necessary contrast with the brilliant bombast found across the rest of Psychedelic Pill.
For all of Young’s lauded restlessness in recent years, the most striking feature of his entire career has been his ability to draw great richness from a somewhat limited pallet of ideas. “A brand new melody with familiar chords,” he sings on Twisted Road, and just about every track here seems to hint back at former glories (Driftin’ Back seems to almost deliberately parody his penchant for nostalgia). This time, however, it’s mostly not in a way that exposes any current limitations or weaknesses. At its best, Psychedelic Pill is an invigorating, ramshackle, heavy beast. At its worst, it’s enjoyably daft.