Every so often an album comes along that fills a reviewer with equal parts excitement and dread. A work by someone of Young’s musical credentials would seem to be best approached with caution. Critiquing an album by someone so revered in the music industry is a treacherous task. Get it wrong and you’re in for a backlash. Be too scathing and people will attack your lack of respect and reverence for a legend. The safe option is to be generally positive, but even then you run the risk of being unenviably tarred with the brush of obsequiousness.
Judging this album simply on it’s merits alone is the aim, however one can’t write as if Young’s previous body of work simply didn’t exist. Comparisons must and will be made with other parts of his prodigious output. It’s also necessary to explain how the album fits (or doesn’t fit) in with the landscape of popular music in 2012
Right then, now that that token disclaimer is out of the way, let’s sink our teeth into the album. It’s Young’s 35th studio album and his first original work with Crazy Horse since Greendale in 2003. It’s also his longest (and only double album) to date , spanning two discs (duh) and 87 minutes. There are thee tracks that exceed 15 minutes in length, which is fairly unusual and I can’t remember many instances of such chronological excess being applied since prog rock became a bloated parody of itself in the late ’70s
The album opens with the 27 minute “Driftin’ Back”. Young’s melancholy acoustic guitar and plaintive vocals open the track until the drums and other musicians fade in with repeated harmonized vocalizations of the track’s title. As expected in such a long track, there are extended instrumental passages with Young’s wailing Les Paul featuring as the most prominent instrument. The song is simple and the chords are basic, but there is a lot going on here. It (and most of the songs) while comprising only Vocals, guitars, drums and bass, are quite multi-faceted. There are a lot of not immediately obvious guitar lines underpinning the lead vocals and solos. This gives the track a very jammy feel, and in fact there are few, if any, overdubs on the album, being recorded mostly in one take. Lyrically this track deals with Neil’s new memoir “Waging Heavy Peace” and his disdain for MP3s, although the lyrics are ambiguous enough and add a poetic quality to the rather dry subject matter. Unlike a lot of rock music circa 2012, there are non-linear tempo changes in this track. Gradual slowing (while Young croons “I’m driftin’ back”) and gradual increases make for a surprising and interesting effect.
Crazy Horse prove themselves to be more than able backing musicians. Their garagey playing is loose and simple, but that’s always been their trademark and robotic perfectionism would ruin this album completely.
The title track is very reminiscent of the classic “Cinnamon Girl”. The main riff is quite similar, but it rocks along quite nicely. There is an annoyingly overdone phase effect over the entire track which I felt unnecessary, and I guess so did the band as they included a non-effected version as a bonus track which I much prefer.
As is represented by the epic opening track, none of the material on offer is complex. It’s very comparable to Young’s previous efforts with Crazy Horse, albeit a little less hard rock oriented and incorporates more of his signature country rock style that is present on his solo works.
Instrumentally, Neil’s simple yet soaring guitar work is the hero of the record. He blends lead and rhythm playing into a singular entity which really drives the album along. His vocal sound has remained virtually unchanged over the years and his distinctive nasal wailing is seemingly unaffected by the passage of time. He really doesn’t sound like a man in his late ’60s. It doesn’t feature all that prominently of course, as you’d expect from an album with such lengthy tracks. It’s more of a feature on shorter more jaunty tracks like “Born In Ontario”, “Twisted Road” and the title track.
An interesting song is “For The Love Of Man”. It’s a very soft and lilting ballad that possesses the most tasteful and creative vocal work on the disc(s). It’s also the only track that features keyboard sounds and they lend it a sort of dreamy and ethereal touch that is not present anywhere else on the album.
The album’s closing number (besides the bonus version of the title track) “Walk Like a Giant” is perhaps the best song on the album. It combines the epic, sprawling nature of “Driftin’ Back” with the more conventional song structures of the shorter tracks. There are great vocal harmonies and some heavy chugging riffs that harken back to the Crazy Horse sound we’re more accustomed to. There’s also the inclusion of a whistled melody which works surprisingly well and further identifies this track as the most interesting on offer. The song has a very long outro, which comprises menacingly low and distorted guitar tones and pounding tom tom phrases which give it a very spooky and malevolent atmosphere. It’s all the more effective due to the fact that it’s unprecedented by the rest of the material and honestly, it adds a bit of wow factor. It’s a great way to end the album. Brooding, threatening, thunderous sounds that act as a crescendo, yet also as a sort of winding down of the album as a whole.
This is one of those albums that may take years to fully understand just where it fits into the epoch in which it was released. It’s certainly very different from most anything released this year by any band whatsoever. The loose playing, extended jam sessions and contrasting hard rock/soft country moods give it a definite uniqueness (in 2012 anyway). When compared to Young’s considerable body of work however, the opposite is true. Besides the lengthy tracks. It doesn’t offer anything wildly different to any other Crazy Horse or Young solo album, not that I expected it to. The longer tracks do drag on a little, causing the listener to drift in and out (or indeed “drift back”), but these longer tracks contain the most interesting and creative work on the album (besides “For The Love Of Man” ). Not surprising seeing as how they’re sort of semi-composed, semi-improvised jams that allow Young to fully embrace his guitar playing. As such, the strongest tracks are the epic opener “Driftin’ Back”, the sad and reflective “For The Love Of Man” and the relatively eclectic and slightly frightening “Walk Like A Giant”.
While Psychedelic Pill doesn’t offer anything radically different to some of Young’s other works, it’s a must for fans and is a mostly enjoyable and sometimes intriguing album that really stands out like a beacon (or a sore thumb depending on your point of view) in the musical year that is 2012.