Neil Young and Crazy Horse Take a Psychedelic Pill Ride to Another Universe

Young and his band rediscover their musical selves on their latest album, even when it tests a listener's patience

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The opening minutes of Psychedelic Pill, the second of two albums Neil Young has released this year with Crazy Horse after their near decade-long absence, find the band in rediscovery. It’s a fine joke, a testament to the singer’s unwillingness to conform to expectation, that Young begins his much-anticipated record of Crazy Horse originals with an acoustic guitar. “I’m driftin’ back,” Young sings in a woozy haze, as if he’s about to enter a dream.

And then he does. Crazy Horse eventually appears out of nowhere, in a slow fade-in, and their introduction to the album feels like a flashback. Young gets the point across well enough: when he plays with The Horse, he is taken to another world. He goes somewhere else.

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Indeed, the extensively drawn out, meandering garage jams on Psychedelic Pill (three songs exceed the 15 minute mark) allow Neil Young & Crazy Horse to truly rediscover their former selves. If Americana served as a warm-up reunion for the band, the 88-minute Psychedelic Pill is a fully realized display of the highs and lows of the well-travelled, sloppy garage band. And if the first album drifted back to the band’s old self through age-old American songs, Young’s latest claims past glory through a full embrace of the band’s 40-year old sound.

For the most part, it’s a joy to hear Crazy Horse stretch out into space and time this freely. Psychedelic Pill is a maximalist work from Young; he has taken the central premise of one of his many musical sides and stretched its vision as far as it will go.

Some moments will test patience. “Driftin’ Back” is essentially Young’s state of the union address, capturing many of the themes and frustrations addressed in his recently released and thoroughly engrossing memoir Waging Heavy Peace. But reading Young’s complaints about degenerating sound quality felt more entertaining and less purely cranky than him singing “don’t want my MP3″ over and over halfway through the album’s opener.

The real surprise is that most of the difficult moments on Psychedelic Pill come from its shortest, pop-ready songs. The title track, which works around a riff almost identical to Young’s “Dirty Old Man” hides and swirls behind effects and pedals, and the result falls flat. “Twisted Road” is a sweet ode to several of Young’s musical heroes and contemporaries, and though the cliché of singing about your idols is forgiven, considering the subject matter at hand, the song feels forced and awkward, prime evidence that Young has been having a much harder time coming up with new songs these days.

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Much has been made of the New Yorker’s harsh attack on Young’s recent memoir and his general aversion to the act of reading. The Canadian songwriter would be much better at what he does, posits Alec Wilkinson, if he were an avid reader. As such, Psychedelic Pill feels like a test of Young’s latter-day songwriting capabilities.

After an album of standards, his own words are on full display, and the inconsistent results are no different from what longtime fans have come to expect from the rusty bard over the past decade. “Ramada Inn” proves that Young need not change his ways in order to write an arresting song with precision and weight. The dark, gentle three-chord attack from Crazy Horse complements the fading hopes and memories of an aging couple on the move, and the 16-minute centerpiece doesn’t feel a second too long.

The last opus from Neil’s newest is similarly preoccupied with fading away. “Walk Like A Giant” is a fine statement for Young & Crazy Horse’s latest. It finds the singer hoping to reclaim past glory, looking back as a way to get excited about the difficult future. On Psychedelic Pill, there are more than enough reasons to stay plenty excited.

Essential Tracks: “Driftin’ Back”, “Ramada Inn”

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