In an interview regarding his new memoir Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young was asked about his father, the journalist and legitimate author Scott Young. “He told me if you start writing, you’d be surprised what comes out. He said, ‘Even if you can’t think of anything to write, go sit where you write.’”
Young took his father’s advice to heart much too literally; his amateurish digression of an autobiography reveals him as someone not fit carry his dad’s Underwood. The practice of writing itself seems to astonish Young thoroughly – the prolific use of exclamation points paint him as naively enthusiastic for his own work: “This is easy!”
And now his new album with his slow-moving grunge-garage band Crazy Horse follows in the same editor-free path. If it were a book it might come with a press blurb, something along the lines of this:
“Boldly under thought, epic in minutes, refreshingly indulgent and daringly ungoverned, Psychedelic Pill is an electric, semi-lucid amble – medicine for an undiagnosed disease.”
Or: “Young has undone himself!” And so: “You must listen to this album if you must!”
Psychedelic Pill’s introduction is Driftin’ Back, a hazy, hypnotic, half-hour-long preface that attempts to explain the rest of the double-CD journey which follows. It begins with a scene-setting acoustic-guitar shape seemingly leftover from his previous album of original material, the Daniel Lanois collaboration (and relative masterpiece) Le Noise from 2010. The author sings: “Dreaming about the way things sound now, write about them in my book … to help you feel this feeling, let you ride along / dreaming about the way you feel now, when you hear my song.”
The track then segues into familiar Crazy Horse trudge, with the periodic harmonic refrain of “I’m driftin’ back” alternating with tarnished silver electric leads and softly sung screeds about contemporary sound marketing (“Don’t want my MP3s”) and kids-today grooming habits (“Gonna get a hip-hop haircut”).
The reunited Young and Crazy Horse this summer released Americana, a, compelling, open-minded electric reinvention of traditional folk songs. Here, however, with their predictable grooves, the backing trio of Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Poncho Sampedro do not inspire their plaid-wearing leader. At best they are facilitators; at worst, enablers. What’s missing is either someone (such as Lanois) to prod Young to better material, or a new band with which to work (such as Pearl Jam, used by Young for 1995’s Mirror Ball).
The title track clocks in at a manageable 3:28. It’s a mid-tempo rocker about a girl “looking for a good time.” The song itself fails to find joy, and is noticeable only for its wind-tunnel sonics.
The superior Ramada Inn concerns an older couple with an eventless future, “holding on to what we’ve done.” Born in Ontario, a goofy autobiographic declaration of birthplace, is done in such a hayseed lope that it seems to poke fun at Young’s rural upbringing. For theLove of Man is a hymn of sorts – a question as to why a child is “born to live, but not like you or I,” from the father of a son with cerebral palsy.
The 16-minute-plus Walk Like a Giant walks decidedly upright, with a riff and scope that recalls the ragged glory of Cowgirl in the Sand or Hey Hey, My My. It’s a hippie-dream lament, for the visionaries of the 1960s and perhaps Young’s own return to the form that produced a stunning amount of classic-rock staples.
Walk Like a Giant ends in a flourish of big-footed stomps of drums and feedback. You imagine Young bowing, eyes-closed, in front of flashbulbs and an applauding crowd. Then he opens his eyes to reality; he has been awakened by the lawnmower outside and the fizzled filament of the 40-watt in his bedside lamp. Time for a new light bulb. Time for an idea.
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