Album Of The Week: Neil Young & Crazy Horse Psychedelic Pill
Sometimes, in the course of writing this column almost every week for the past year, I’ve had the following response to hearing a great album for the first time: “Fuck, now I have to decide if this is better than this other great album.” The whole Album Of The Week idea is, admittedly, entirely a subjective construction and a way to talk about new records I like, not some scientific down-through-the-ages survey of the week’s music. But I do take it seriously, even when it makes no sense to take it seriously. Like this week, for instance. How do you choose between Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill and Neurosis’s Honor Found In Decay? And why would you choose between them, when they compliment each other so perfectly? Obviously, both albums belong to different genres and contexts and address different ideas. But they’re both albums full of wandering fuzztone rainy-day epics full of apocalyptic old-man regret. They sound amazing next to each other. They complete each other. There’s no reason to value one over the other. (This week also sees the release of the absolutely excellent self-titled debut from the Crystal Ark, Gavin Russom’s new art-disco project, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with these other two albums.) And yet, I’ve tasked myself with picking one. I can’t say with any real certainty that Psychedelic Pill will hold up better than Honor Found In Decay. I can say that it’s the album that’s exerting slightly more pull on my soul this afternoon, so it gets the nod. Sometimes, that’s just how it shakes out.
Much of the press chatter about Psychedelic Pill has involved specific demarcations of time: Second Crazy Horse album of the year, first one of original songs in nearly ten. 87 expansive minutes of music. A 27-minute opener. A couple of other songs that approach the 17-minute mark. Simply looking at the album’s iTunes tag, it’s tempting to look at Psychedelic Pill as a thrown gauntlet, a challenge to any listener dealing with shortened attention spans. Young, after all, was winning VMAs for being an out-of-step crank 25 years ago, and plenty of lyrics on Psychedelic Pill read as harrumphs: “I used to dig Picasso / Then the big tech giant came along / And turned him into wallpaper.” But I’d argue that this is the wrong way to hear the album. Psychedelic Pill is, it turns out, an album about time. But it’s not really an album about time’s cruel and endless forward march; it’s more about finding yourself lost, as it extends every which way, beyond your comprehension.
If you’ve ingested enough psychedelic pills yourself, you’re well aware of the phenomenon of the flashback, that brief and disorienting instant when you have no idea if you’re five or 25. And Psychedelic Pill is flashback city, Young lyrically calling back to nuggets of thought from decades ago, sounding vaguely amazed by how vivid they still feel. The album has lyrics about hearing “Like A Rolling Stone” for the first time, about playing the same venue where he once saw Roy Orbison, about the province where he was born. And when he and Crazy Horse launch off on one of their extended instrumental journeys, which they do often, there’s an air of sense-memory about it all. Young’s generous solos here don’t blaze or soar or shiver. His guitars and those of Frank “Poncho” Sampedro murmur back and forth, having quiet conversations that they’re not sure they want us to overhear. The vocal harmonies bring a sighing, comfortable awe that’s not quite as expected. Even on “Driftin’ Back,” that 27-minute opener, where Young occasionally steps to the mic and issues another old-man complaint, the complaints aren’t the real point of the song. The real point is in the stretching-into-infinity instrumental passages, and in the quieter bits where Young and his friends just repeat the song’s title softly to themselves. And I’ve found that the best way to listen to the album is to unstick myself from time, to let all those currents of guitar and voice carry me to a place deeper inside my own head.
On “Twisted Road,” the same song where Young mentions Dylan and Orbison, he also gives us a quick ode to the Grateful Dead, and it’s tempting to draw parallels between that band’s excursions and his own. I don’t hear it, though. That band’s jam-out sessions were always too active, too wacky. Instead, sections of Psychedelic Pill remind me of the quiet, desolate beauty of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain,” or of Ennio Morricone’s widescreen tingle. (Young is, appropriately enough, the guy who scored Dead Man, the best spaghetti western of the past 20 years or so.) The album traverses a few different forms of music, from shaggy stomp-rock to plangent country. But it does all of them with a loose, unhurried confidence. The different genre’s aren’t the point; they’re merely Young’s chosen vehicles for his feelings about drift and loss.
But it’s not all bleak. Even the most scorched-earth passages sparkle with loose, effortless melody. And there’s something deeply heartening about the simple existence of the album. Here we have this group of old, old friends who probably communicate with each other more clearly through bursts of fuzztone than they do through words. And this is the moment where they decide that nothing’s stopping them from stretching their old musical ideas out further than they’ve ever been stretched, from working out their improvisational brain-muscles. And as much as Young might detest the mp3 era, it’s tough to imagine a major label letting him get away with releasing an album like this back in the day. We’re better off for it.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Neurosis’s overwhelming dirge-metal monsterpiece Honor Found In Decay.
• The Crystal Ark’s sparkling self-titled disco-house debut.
• Meek Mill’s fiery street-rap explosion Dreams & Nightmares.
• Andy Stott’s buzzy, haunted dance breakout Luxury Problems.
• Cody ChesnuTT’s long-awaited outsider-soul comeback Landing On A Hundred.
• The Soft Moon’s sparse, spooky postpunk album Zeros.
• Chad Valley’s drifting twinkle-pop joing Young Hunger.
• The Coup’s funky activist-rap LP Sorry To Bother You.
• Fort Lean’s crackling power-pop EP Change Your Name.
• Andrew Bird’s Break It Yourself companion piece Hands Of Glory.
• Grails’ psychedelic instrumental long-player Black Tar Prophecies Volume 5.
• MHz Legacy’s self-titled underground rap crew effort.
• Hercules And Love Affair’s DJ-Kicks mix.
• Fiery Furnace Matthew Friedberger’s sprawling concept-piece Matricidal Sons Of Bitches.
• Everything But The Girl singer Tracey Thorn’s Christmas album Tinsel And Lights.
• Cee-Lo Green’s Christmas album Cee-Lo’s Magic Moment.
• The all-star indie-heavy Christmas-music comp Holidays Rule.