With news of a new Neil Young album it’s difficult not to wonder which Neil we’re going get this time. In a 40 plus year career he’s offered up some legendary albums and also some real turkeys. For every After The Goldrush there’s Everybody’s Rocking. One useful indication is the presence of his rock band Crazy Horse. Neil loves them for their feel, and their willingness to stick to a groove and allow him to solo endlessly over the top. There’s no denying Crazy Horse bring out the best in Neil primarily because they make him get electric.
Which leads us to Psychedelic Pill, and from the opening chords of the twenty seven and a half minute Drifting Back it’s clear that Neil is back where he belongs, wielding epic ramshackle garage jams into the ether. There’s something reassuring about finding him here, big loud, noisy, loose and lumbering, lost in a reverie, guitar flailing in full flight, buoyed by Crazy Horse’s rough hewn energy.
Psychedelic Pill is an album drowning in reflection and aging, possibly the overflow from his recent autobiography Waging Heavy Peace. He rails against Mp3’s, the commercialization of art, and the death of the hippy dream, yet also tips his hat to Dylan, and delivers a rousing tune about his birthplace in Ontario.
At 87 plus minutes, Psychedelic Pill is Neil’s longest album, a double disc set providing plenty of space between the extended hypnotic riffs for a man intent on looking backwards. In fact it’s the combination of earnest nostalgia and ragged anthemic playing that makes Psychedelic Pill so rewarding, demonstrating that as a unit Neil and Crazy Horse still have something to say. “She likes to burn,” he offers on She’s Always Dancing, and the same could be said for Neil. Four decades on and he’s still playing with matches.
When David Geffen signed Neil Young in 1982 he bit off a little more than he could chew. Neil’s Geffen years demonstrate an artist changing with the breeze. You have the awful horribly misguided rockabilly of Everybody’s Rockin, the 80’s tainted Landing on Water, or the exceptional Trans – that sounds nothing like traditional Neil Young. By the time he got to Old Ways you’d think they would’ve breathed a sigh of relief. Nup, they ultimately sued him, and to be honest Old Ways was no Harvest.
Yet in 84-85 deep in legal disputes he headed on the road with the International Harvesters, a grab bag of legendary country music artists including Spooner Oldham, Karl Himmel, Joe Allen and of course Ben Keith. Most of these tunes would end up on Old Ways, yet there are six that have never been released before, which is of course why we’re so breathless about these archives releases.
There’s looseness to the playing here, it feels raw, fun, a contrast to the overly laboured Old Ways. So even the songs we already know feel lighter, freer than on album. It’s actually probably the most accomplished band that Neil has ever played with; all of them are Nashville alumni. The problem is that whilst the band makes most of the tunes sound great; there are few of those epic Neil Young classics here.
Southern Pacific from Re-ac-tor at eight odd minutes is like a train coming and sounds incredible with a banjo solo, whilst another run at Buffalo Springfield’s Flying on the Ground is Wrong with the country folk sounds more lush, somehow more poignant with pedal steel. The best song on this set is a new, Grey Riders, an almost six minute dirge of squalling guitars that somehow makes sense with fiddle and organ, particularly when you consider Neil’s pained wail while he throttles his guitar, suggesting more Crazy Horse than International Harvesters. It all sounds pretty great though, if you like your bluegrass, your honky tonk, and your Neil this is his 12 months escape from the hippies, from Geffen and probably from his former misguided 1980’s infused selves, playing state fairs, rodeo arenas and loving it.
There is a reason that Neil Young decided to call his 7 millionth album Le Noise. It’s due to the presence of producer extraordinaire Daniel Lanois (Dylan/U2) who has warped and distended his sounds, adding a complexity and a kind of inebriated psychedelic slur over everything. Not just echoes on the vocals, or walls of reverb, but a grander more signature stamp on the album. Where most bands pull back on the effects to try to portray the illusion of reality Neil and Daniel elected to make it all overt. It’s not that it’s too much, rather it’s just very obvious, almost another instrument woven within the songs.
It’s an incredibly stark and stripped down album, dark like Tonight’s the Night, perhaps like that 1975 offering prompted by the death of someone close to him, this time bandleader and mercurial pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith. It’s just Neil and his guitar, either acoustic or electric, yet the production fills any void, moving, pulsing, warping along with a kind of controlled weirdness. Neil has returned to that meaty fuzzy, ok, grunge guitar sound of Sleeps With Angels era and Lanois treatment of his guitar is nothing short of extraordinary, both in terms of texture and timbre, but also in terms of the way it’s stretched across the stereo field, Song wise Lanois rescues some of Young’s potentially lame moments such as Angry World with a guitar sound you can almost taste in your mouth and a disconcerting vocal loop. The effects duck, weave explode and disappear around Young’s songs as he continues almost oblivious. He doesn’t interact, they both just do their own thing.
There’s a kind of reflective poring over his life, but you suppose death of a close friend can do that to you. On the Hitchhiker, he details his drug history whilst on Love and War he notes that they’re very familiar subjects for him. You get the feeling that La Noise is about asking questions into the void. “When will I learn to Give Back? When Will I learn to heal?” He asks on Rumblin.
Neil Young albums can be hit and miss. Yet every now and then something in his brain seems to snap and he takes a real risk, changing things up. Both Trans, and Dead Man spring to mind, maybe even Sleeps With Angels. Le Noise belongs here as well. This is a great album.
Bob Baker Fish