Neil Young--despite being, inarguably, one of the greatest and most influential artists in rock's long history--has been pretty hit or miss over the past couple decades, choosing to follow his every crazy whim while still periodically demonstrating, even after all these years, both his undeniable gift for songwriting and storytelling, and the potential to one day create yet one more timeless classic.
Now that potential has come to full fruition, possibly triggered by the penning of his recent autobiography, 'Waging Heavy Peace,' with memories of the glory days reinvigorating him and, through osmosis, Crazy Horse as well. It's probably a bit too early to say definitively, but I think it could be argued that 'Psychedelic Pill' is Neil's best studio effort since 1990's near-perfect 'Ragged Glory,' also with Crazy Horse. It definitely helps here to be a fan of the band's patented sloppy-yet-sublime noodling jams, as they're in such abundance throughout these two discs I could picture even The Grateful Dead going, "guys, that's a bit much don't you think?" But for anyone who's into their more drawn-out songs (like yours truly), this album proves, in case anyone forgot, just who the world's greatest garage band is. Still.
The perfect evidence comes right out of the gate with "Driftin' Back," a positively epic track that's among the band's best, and at nearly half an hour in length, is perfect for the fan who thought the guitar solo in "Cortez the Killer" was about 20 minutes too short. The lyrics--concerning the growing commercialization of music and art, and the "failure" of the 60's counterculture movement to induce change (with such classic, comedic Neil gems as "gonna get me a hip-hop haircut")--are secondary to the quasi-improvisational, marathon jams that find Young loosely but expertly weaving his jagged guitar solos all around the other instruments, to the point that it's nearly impossible to not just drift away into a hypnotized state of blissed-out euphoria.
Another standout is the excellent, 16-minute "Walk Like A Giant," which echoes "Driftin' Back"s theme of the failed promises of the Love Generation, with some of Young's best, most moving lyrics in recent memory: "Me and my friends, we were gonna save the world. Then the weather changed and the white got stained...and it breaks my heart." The fuzzed-out, squalling guitars dominate the song--which showcases some great backing vocals and musical interplay from the rest of the band--until it degenerates into a clangor of noise for four straight minutes, reflecting, in a way, the shattered dreams Young sings about here.
While the longer tracks on 'Psychedelic Pill' will most likely get all the pub, shorter numbers such as "Twisted Road"--a heartfelt tribute to Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, and the Grateful Dead--show that Young hasn't lost the ability to write a great, simple pop tune. The 60's-ish garage-psych of the title track nods to Neil Young and Crazy Horse's 1969 classic, "Cinnamon Girl," and to great effect, with swirling guitars that drift from one speaker to the other, resulting in a hallucinatory, tripped-out listening experience made for headphones. The catchy three-chord groove of "Born in Ontario" is actually pretty uplifting, and it's hard to keep from smiling and bobbing your head to its infectious, accordion-laced chorus.
The only subpar note the album strikes, imo, is the slightly underwhelming "For the Love of Man," a leftover song from the 80's that, while not a stinker by any means, just seems too subdued and out of place on an otherwise visceral album, though the lyrics concerning Neil's cerebral palsy-stricken son are touchingly poignant and fit well with the album's theme of catharsis. It just would have fit better on a more personal solo release from Neil, I think. Nit-picky, I know, but it's hard to find any real flaws on the album, so that'll have to do as far as criticisms are concerned.
With a runtime of nearly 90 minutes, one would think that the album's long, meandering jams would get old after a while, but that couldn't be further from the truth. 'Psychedelic Pill' shows signs that Neil Young could possibly be entering a renaissance period, hopefully one that mirrors Bob Dylan's current fifteen-year resurgence. This is an album that I believe stands above anything he's done in over 20 years, and one that can even sit comfortably next to (or just below in a couple cases) his 60's and 70's classics, with or without Crazy Horse, a remarkable feat for an artist in the midst of his sixth decade making music.
Through all the peaks and valleys of his illustrious career, Neil Young has proven he's still capable of surprising the listener with a powerful, moving batch of songs about loss, broken dreams, and redemption, and with some insanely prodigious jamming to boot, thanks to the near-psychic connection between he and the band. Here's hoping there's more where that came from. But I'm just glad he's still out there, plugging away as usual.