On his new album, Neil Young is looking back at over 40 years of making music, and he isn’t sure how he feels about it. Along for this uncertain ride into the past are the Greatest Garage Band in the World, the inimitable Crazy Horse, with all of their quirks and idiosyncrasies. They’ve reunited with their old master to reflect and rage on the events of a remarkable life.
Much has been made of the supposed effect of Neil’s recent “sobriety” on these songs. The truth is that he probably would have made this record whether he was sober or not. The pensive, bittersweet tone isn’t a product of his brain chemistry. It’s rather the reflections of a singular, iconoclastic artist in the autumn of his career who has suddenly found himself without any peers or comrades. In the last two decades, Neil’s three biggest creative allies have all left his earth: legendary anti-producer David Briggs, musical arranger and collaborator Ben Keith, and film/music guru LA Johnson. It’s hard not to read Neil’s recent brotherly embrace of Crazy Horse as a man hunkering down with the only friends he has left.
Neil Young is a force of nature, a mighty, whirling hurricane of creative urges, not the kind of man who pulls his punches. Nonetheless, there is sense of fragility and sadness to these songs. If “Americana” was a history lesson and a quirky warm-up exercise to get the Horse back up and running again, then “Psychedelic Pill” is the soul-searching voyage into the foggy uncertainty of human memory and the shifting nature of emotion, viewed from the perspective of a truly singular artist. Nobody has ever had or ever will have the musical journey that Neil has had, and his viewpoint on his own life and career is far from black-and-white.
“Driftin’ Back” starts the album off in a decidedly stream-of-consciousness manner. The song is nearly 28 minutes long, with lyrics that ramble through the past, present, and future in a way that echoes some of his earlier work. Neil has always been a time traveller in his songs, and with this mammoth piece he is showing us what his warped mental landscape is truly like, without any self-editing. Like Billy Pilgrim, Neil Young has become unstuck in time. He opens with a lamentation on the curses of technology, one of Neil’s preferred subjects of late. He then weaves together disconnected truisms and personal history. He speaks of religion, the devaluation of art, of the death of the individual, the trials of the soul. The song is like one of those beautiful rambling conversations that you have with old friends: no need to elaborate on the context, just pure reflection. But the real heart of this song, as is often the case with Crazy Horse, is in the long, meandering instrumental jams. You can hear death and life, joy and pain, sadness and beauty, in between every note he wrestles and coaxes from Old Black. It’s heartbreaking and sublime. The other major undercurrent of this song is a barely-repressed, senseless anguish (a theme that continues through the rest of the album). Neil is looking at the world today and trying to figure out how it became this way. He’s angry and confused and wailing into the abyss, the black hole that rests in the center of all human understanding. History is a featureless void and personal history even more so. Sometimes the lessons are hard to discern.
“Psychedelic Pill” is a great new iteration of one of Young’s recurring themes: the carefree, dancing woman. Neil has spoken before about how he had his own dancing fantasies as a young boy, and the image of the radiant woman, lost in the music and living in the moment, is important in his iconography: it represents redemption and freedom. He returns to this theme again on the album; it’s a harbour for his rambling, restless psyche.
“Ramada Inn” comes on next in a rush of melancholic wistfulness. The song talks about an older couple and the humble details of their lives: raising kids, visiting old friends, learning to love through forgiveness and acceptance, over and over again. The protagonist struggles with substance abuse. His stalwart wife begs him to clean up. And every morning comes the sun…
“Born In Ontario” takes us back even further, into Neil’s childhood. In order to figure out where he is going, he needs to return to where he has been. This Ontario is beautiful and safe, an echo of a happy life with a loving family. The whole song is punched up by some classic Crazy Horse grit and a buoyant organ solo. “Twisted Road” continues the happy reminiscing by name-dropping a bunch of Young’s musical heroes: The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison. On this song, he examines the impact and inspiration of his early musical revelations.”She’s Always Dancing” returns to the dancing woman image, a beautiful memory that guard and protect against fear. “For The Love of Man” comes on like a hymn, a prayer to the Almighty to show us the way. “Let the angels ring the bells, in the holy halls”, he sings sweetly, like the pain has the power to purify. But Young is only steeling himself for the massive psychodrama about to unfold on the next tune.
Without a doubt, the centre-piece of this album is “Walk Like A Giant”. It’s an aptly-named song if there ever was one, because this tune is a wretched, hungry, raging beast. Young mourns the death of idealism, of hope. “I wanna walk like a giant on the land/ Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream” he sings, bemoaning the sense of helplessness that comes with aging. The song embodies bitter regret and hopeless anger. He is taking the hippies (including himself) to task over their failures, their broken idealism. It’s a gail-force wind that changes direction every couple of minutes. He is facing down the death of thought, that place where one’s ability to make sense of life comes to an end, the apocalypse itself: “Whenever I see the big fire coming, coming to burn down all my ideas”. But the real drama, the real anger, is in the guitar solos. Like a wounded animal, Young thrashes and wails through his instrument, deconstructing his own ego and the world around him without uttering a word. The sound is evocative and terrifying, beautiful in its purity.
Neil’s guitar playing on this album contains some of his most freewheeling, inspired riffing in a lifetime of epic jams. The real reflections, the real conversations, happen in the wordless interplay between these old friends. Truly this is a fan’s album, as the casual listener will not have the patience or the frame of reference for these songs. But that’s exactly what Crazy Horse does best, and Neil Young knew that if he was going to descend into the darkest places of his soul, he needed some old friends for support. It’s a scary, heartbreaking road, filled with moral ambivalence and ambiguous characters, but it is worth travelling.
Love live the Horse.