Other Voices 003

Monday, 26 November 2012

At this point in his career, it's hard to know what to even hope for from Neil Young – let alone what to expect. With Psychedelic Pill, Neil Young creeps up on seventy with his old noise-mongering cronies in Crazy Horse in tow, forty-three years after their debut together. Young's guitar foil in 1969 was the late Danny Whitten, a player whose style was no less ferocious, if not quite as wooly, than his mid-Seventies replacement Frank Sampedro. With his legendary band behind him, Young offers an entry in his labyrinthine discography that brutally and beautifully reasserts what it means to stay relevant in an industry which cannot even recognize itself from the cannibalistic trends it has allowed to take root. Everything about the man's presence in the music landscape has been saturated in effortless iconoclasm (from his wet toilet paper voice through his "three months of lessons will suffice" guitar heroics to his bird-flippin' genre cartwheels), to the point where his willful alienation of his audience actually plays as one of the man's strongest traits. My teenaged nephew told me about recently seeing Young and Crazy Horse play a charity concert in New York City, by the end of which both he and my brother, with almost three decades on the kid, were both exhausted by the band's tug of war between feedback and crowd patience. I marveled at the man's ability to cross generations and irritate them.

The story reminded me of my own most recent experience seeing Young play live (sans Crazy Horse, but with a full band which included his wife Pegi) when, coming up on three hours of set time, he broke out a cover of "A Day in the Life,” at which point I was content to concede to my friends' weary desire to finally make our way back home. Young has crafted a songwriting legacy that is as legendary and timeless in its own rustic manner as that of the Beatles and if he was veering away from his own compositions to pay tribute to his British forebears, I could leave contented that he said at least most of his piece for the evening. That breaking point, however, is part of the experience. With Young, you want too much of a good thing. His tireless guitar raging, which on moments of this album seems to be getting improbably heavier than ever before, often appears as if it will ring out forever, but sooner or later mortality will beat Young at his own game and the same potentially worn out fan base will long for that level of idiosyncrasy and indulgence (the likes of which we are highly unlikely to ever see again on a scale of such significance and posterity). It should be noted that the opening act at that same concert was Wilco, a band I've seen many times through different incarnations, but who'd never been quite so charmingly energized. Throughout their own rather abbreviated set, the whole band was clearly mugging for their idol and securing their legacy as Young's most immediate descendants of gorgeous noise and majesty.

In 2012 Young is still kicking with the brashness and tenacity of a high school punk rocker (a sentiment which informs more than a little of the album's grand finale on Psychedelic Pill, "Walk Like a Giant"), he's invited Ralph Molina, Billy Talbot and "Poncho" Sampedro to sit at his table in the cafeteria and the quartet have retained every ounce of the forehead-smacking balance of brawn and agility that used to leave me awestruck every time I sat through the Young directed Rust Never Sleeps concert movie (and I have watched the shit out of that movie). The crucial difference is that, a mere two years after the Rust Never Sleeps film, Young showed up in Scorsese's The Last Waltz, alongside The Band – where he appeared more fragile and fucked up than he ever had before or likely since. His appearance, to perform "Helpless" (a legitimate contender for his single greatest song, no small claim or unchallenged assertion), is stirring enough to overcome Joni Mitchell's ill-advised warbling in the background (so needless and obnoxious that she is stashed behind the curtain), but his physical state is alarming at the least as he gnashes his way through the vocals (his voice lending new import to his oft-cited moniker "Shakey") and shuffles around like his whole torso is in a sling. The moment itself (immortalized by last minute edits, to remove the massive cocaine booger he brought to the stage with him as his own surprise guest performer, which say almost as much about the undertaking of the documentary as a screening of Raging Bull), every bit the weird cinematic equivalent of Rust Never Sleeps' reggae-tinged version of "Cortez the Killer,” rivals Van Morrison's shit-housed, purple jump-suited exhortations to "turn up your rah-dee-oh" and Neil Diamond's hard on for his semitic-Elvis narcissism-fest as the true highlight of Scorsese's movie and resulted in Young's reflection on the incident as involving the most fiscally disproportionate drugs he'd ever invested in.

These days, Young has his final off-ramp (one he'll undoubtedly take in his electric car) much closer in the windshield than any of the artistic experiments or blatant label strong-arming in his rearview. The fuel to burn and roads to drive, however, are navigated by a man with the full confidence of a life defined by his career and his opinions, the very topics that guide the listener through all twenty-seven and a half minutes of Psychedelic Pill's opener "Driftin' Back.” After an acoustic fake-out, Young leaves the door open for Crazy Horse and, between extended bouts of distorted leads, bitches wistfully about the neutered domesticity of Picasso's work, the death knell audible in MP3 format and his prevailing desire for a "hip hop haircut" (which brings to mind the fantastic imagery of Neil Young starring in a remake of House Party). He and the Horse employ similar length (a trick that served Young so well on Chrome Dreams II's "Ordinary People,” my favorite Young song of recent years) and heft on "Ramada Inn,” an invigoratingly sad depiction of domestic sacrifice and the familiarity of the stranger you've chosen to grow old with that bristles with depressing poignancy, but never comes off melancholy.

Elsewhere, the band rolls along far more briskly on songs like the title-track, which sounds a bit like Crazy Horse by numbers, but provides the album with a resident anthem and a hell of an argument for the merits of flanging, evidenced by the untreated version of the song which serves as the album's epilogue and plays like an extraneous peak behind the curtain. The back-to-back sequencing of "Born in Ontario" and "Twisted Road" find Young at his most exuberant and downright fun, extolling his pride in his home region and his love for Hank Williams, Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, like some kind of aged stoner's holy trinity. The break in the album necessitated by the double disc sprawl of the release drags down the pair's momentum slightly, but it's without question the most road trip worthy stretch of the record.

Young's songwriting utilizes the gang vocals allowed for with Crazy Horse to the best effect on the ghostly "She's Always Dancing," which I'm convinced is a love song to a dead woman. At the very least it's the strongest example of how pretty the band's noise can be since Broken Arrow's "Slip Away." The album's lone attempt at straight balladry is not nearly as successful on "For the Love of Man," a song I can't rightly criticize as being sub-par in any tangible way, but also can't pretend I particularly enjoy listening to, as it veers uncomfortably closer to maudlin than introspective.

The whole endeavor climaxes with the thunderous "Walk Like a Giant,” which teases out the edges of the "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" riff and calls back to the opening song's nod of "Hey now now". The song, kick-ass whistling hook and all, eclipses the band's erstwhile tour mates Sonic Youth's later work in its pure devotion to cacophony and suggests that if these guys can still keep this shit up at their age, maybe it's because they never married each other. The lyrics contain a perfect synopsis of how the best laid plans can laugh in your face, "then the weather changed/and the white got stained/and it fell apart/and it breaks my heart,” lamenting everything Young couldn't achieve for all his considerable gifts, the band chugging along toward the inevitable doom-laden comedown and the ethereal falsetto that brings the song, and the set, to a close. It's the most eyebrow raising moment in Young's discography in a long time, but also seems indicative that perhaps his next release could saunter out of the studio with an even bigger pair of balls swinging in the wind. After all, Neil Young never gave a fuck before, so why start now?


Further Reading:

Ground Control Magazine – Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill – [Album Review]


Psychedelic Pill
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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