Neil Young Psychedelic Pill Just What the Doctor Ordered

Psychedelic Pill
Reprise 531980-2
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Neil Young turned 67 on November 12, so he’s entitled to a little nostalgia. His latest double CD, Psychedelic Pill, is a veritable flash back on his life and career. There is, for instance, “Born in Ontario,” one of the few laid-back selections on the album (and one of the shortest), a countryesque ditty about simpler times and a slower pace. “Twisted Road” is his musical career in a nutshell, starting with the “First time I heard ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’” and complete with mentions of Hank Williams and the Grateful Dead. The latter reference is appropriate, as many of Young’s guitar solos have the same crystalline clarity for which Jerry Garcia was famous. Another Dead evocation is the very length of most of the tracks—most are over ten minutes, several surpass fifteen, and “Walk Like a Giant” crosses twenty-five. In each case, Young finds a groove and allows the music to flow like a long straight road; it’s the same kind of semi-trance state that one obtains on a lonesome stretch of highway when the radio is blaring and time seems suspended.

When Young isn’t paying homage to Dylan or the Dead, he plays to another persona: the grandfather of grunge. He’s been playing with several members of Crazy Horse since 1966, and this album rekindles some of the magic that emerged on classic collaborations such as “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere” (1969) and “Rust Never Sleeps” (1978). If you know those records, you know part of the formula: Young’s high, expressive vocals and riff-laden lead guitar immersed in power chords, muscular percussion, and well-placed feedback and dissonance. Young builds and layers the sound, lets it find its path, and steps back to allow the tones to meld, blend, and envelop. Listening to “Walk Like a Giant” reminded me of why so many punk rockers loved Young, and why so few of them ever attained his following—he’s simply so far out of their league they’d need a bus to get to the same area code. And the old guy still gets righteously pissed off about things. “Driftin’ Back” contains the repeated refrain “Blockin’ out my anger,” but don’t believe it. The song is a catalogue of things that get his goat: megachurches, the commercialization of Picasso, faux gurus, hip hop haircuts, and MP3’s: “When you hear my song now/You only get 5%/You used to get it all....”

It may sound like an oxymoron, but Young is in superb voice on this album. He’s had choir-like backup singers for years, and Crazy Horse fits that bill on Pill. Young also has the wisdom to dial things back; he can’t hit those screaming-eagle high notes of his youth and he doesn’t try. But his facility with mid-range tones gives his voice an earnestness that conveys emotion better than histrionics. “Walk Like a Giant” finishes what may be Young’s strongest record of new material since 1990’s Ragged Glory. And, yes, he gets very nostalgic on this one, admitting that he misses youthful days when “I used to walk like a giant on the land,” and lamenting the loss of idealism and innocence: “But then the weather changed/And the white got stained/And it fell apart/And it breaks my heart/Go think about how close we came.”

I adored this record. Does Young recycle some tunes? He always has! Is the album too long? Probably. Does he milk some of his hooks dry? Well… he and drummer Ralph Molina had a very cool idea for ending “Walk Like a Giant” that would have been brilliant at one minute, but is tedious a ten. But, as the title track reminds us, “Age has nothing to do with having a good time.” Take two psychedelic pills/discs and you won’t need to call me in the morning.—Rob Weir

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