I’ve been listening to Neil Young’s “Psychedelic Pill” a lot over the last few days. My partner bought it as I had resisted, having been through the Neil Young cycle numerous times in the last (almost) 20 years.
The Neil Young cycle is: NY releases an album > the album receives uniformly glowing reviews citing it as a “career highlight” or “return to form” > I buy it > I listen to it and realise it’s garbage (again…)
I brought an end to the NY cycle after Le Noise,which on paper was a great idea but in reality did neither NY or Daniel Lanois any favours; I listened to it maybe three times before common sense prevailed and it was “filed.”
I noted that “Psychedelic Pill’s” reviews were very favourable, although well down the pecking order in most papers and magazines – was this a sign of sobriety and perspective for once?
I even liked the cover art, but still managed to resist the NY cycle again…
But then it appeared at home due to the good offices of my partner, who pays more attention to reviews, is probably more forgiving of NY’s “will this do?” attitude to his output since, oh, “Sleeps With Angels” and is generally just a better person.
She played it for the first time when I was out last week and told me that it was brilliant and I’d really enjoy it, using as citation that the first track was half an hour long and only had four lines.
This in itself didn’t deflate my cynicism: it certainly sounded like the old dog doing the same old tricks (while wearing the emperor’s new clothes again.) NY seems to strike the fear of death into normally sensible writers, who will automatically praise to the heavens anything he does; there’s a real fear that if a word of negative criticism were uttered, it would only show that the hapless scribe was not “getting it” – it’s Neil Young, ergo it must be great and anyone who doesn’t get it must be wrong. And a self-perpetuating cycle of “will this do (because you liked it the last time?) / OH YES PLEASE!” is set up, with diminishing returns for everyone.
Tom Waits has lived off this sort of twisted exchange for over twenty years, but that’s another story…
When I eventually did listen to “Psychedelic Pill’s” massive sprawl, it was a huge relief. Young is present in this album as he has not been on any of his records for about twenty years; the cliches about NY and Crazy Horse playing as one man, the complexity of their simplicity, etc. are accurate; the thought even occurs that NY is doing some very original stuff here…
Take the aforementioned lead track “Drifting Back.” It is precisely that; drifting, albeit for nearly thirty minutes. The melody is one of Young’s best for many, many years; the track opens with an immediately inviting sonic montage of an acoustic introduction upon the full racket of Crazy Horse playing the same song; and the lyrics are so unrelentingly crap that it must be intentional to focus the listener on the drift of the music (I say that more in hope than conviction though…)
Boy, those lyrics…he gets in a few gripes about how he doesn’t like modern recording, has a swipe at meditation, talks about blocking out his anger, but mostly seems to be singing the first thing that comes into his head, even when that is along the lines of “oh my, hey, my my…” which in its setting is relatively profound.
But strangely, it’s all good and adds to the drift the band set up… what are words worth in the swell of this river of sound?
Next up, NY and the band rip through the title track which is concision itself at around three minutes. The whole mix is put through waves of phasing (a second, uncredited mix appears at the end of the album where only the vocal has this hallucinogenic treatment,) and I’m reminded of Young’s experimentation with sound in Buffalo Springfield; he’d seemed to have given up the fruitful dalliance with art-pop around his first solo album, so it is refreshing to see this thread renewed.
He also seems to be refreshing the Cinnamon Girl/Cowgirl in the Sand character lyrically here and the concision of the piece is reminiscent of the former.
There are a couple of clunkers throughout the other fifty-odd minutes of “Psychedelic Pill,” mostly due to unimaginative revisits to the NY barndance template ( a whiff of “will-this do?”,) but generally throughout these lengthy meditative pieces, there is a sense that NY is present and mindful of quality over quantity again.
I checked my theory about the importance of his own presence in NY’s music by re-listening to The Bernstein Tapes bootleg of solo acoustic performances taped and compiled by Joel Bernstein in the mid-seventies. And yes indeed, the reason that is such a good listen is that Bernstein has selected only performances where NY is at one with the piece he is performing, with his voice and his piano or guitar. And I’m reminded of the comment NY makes to Bernstein in the film included on the DVD with the Massey Hall 1971 release; speaking of the audio of the performance, NY comments “I ‘m really on at the beginning…” From this I take it that NY is aware of how fleeting these moments of inspiration can be. Happily, it would appear that the breath of inspiration was abundant during the recorded performance of “Psychedelic Pill.”