Psychedelic Pill, the first album of original material from Neil Young and Crazy Horse in nearly a decade, comes on like a flashback. The double album is old man Young’s trip down memory lane (or “Twisted Road,” as he puts it), its gestures of protest mainly a mode of confronting the passage of time. It’s longwinded, taxing, and crunchily dissonant, bereft of even the token acoustic gem—not an album to be tinkered with by anyone who isn’t already firmly in the Crazy Horse saddle. For those who are, the album will be something close to a revelation. The band remains full of whinny and stomp, Young still has the fire in his belly, and the musical idiom he once termed “metal folk protest music” offers ample support to the singer’s most free-associative and self-referential album in a career full of them.
Bear in mind that Young is fresh off composing his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, which the singer described as a therapeutic experience. Psychedelic Pill follows fast on its heels, and in the same inward vein. Dispensing with the postcolonial polemics of “Powderfinger” and “Cortez the Killer,” the album nonetheless contains withering industry indictments—of contemporary listening habits, the sonic impoverishment of digital music, and so on. Such jabs, though, are focalized in a thoroughly personal way: Young was always able to conjure a sense of the conversational in a melody, but here he does so with special aplomb. “Twisted Road” finds Young traveling a “two-lane highway through a state of mind,” a fair epithet for the album’s prism of reminiscences. On the latter song, Young remembers hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” for the first time and offers one of the world’s niftiest descriptions of Bob Dylan’s delivery: “Poetry rollin’ off his tongue/Like Hank Williams chewin’ bubble gum.” Dylan couldn’t have put it better himself.
The moments of self-reference are too many to count, but it’s worth noting that the 27-minute opening track, “Driftin’ Back,” hangs on a vocal hook (“Hey now now, hey now now”) that recalls “Hey Hey, My My (Out of the Blue, Into the Black)” in a rather ostentatious way. The latter song appeared on 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, an album famously divided between acoustic and electric sets; on “Driftin’ Back,” Young enacts, and then explodes, that division in the first 90 seconds, as a nice acoustic duet fades to full-band electricity under the lockstep harmonies of Crazy Horse—a disorienting, hallucinogenic moment worthy of the album title. The recurring mantra of “Don’t want my mp3,” meanwhile, is both a sendup of the 1980s’ “I want my MTV!” ad campaign and a keening complaint about the progressive degradation of sound quality in recorded music, a longstanding pet peeve and a theme Young will return to: “When you hear my song now/You only get five percent.” (Roll your eyes and invoke the free hand of the market, if you like; vinyl-heads everywhere will side with Neil.)
“Cortez the Killer” was a song that could support 18 minutes of wailing, and “Driftin’ Back” doesn’t have the same hypnotic structure or sense of epic narrative. Crazy Horse isn’t the Grateful Dead, and 27 minutes listening to the group jam on two chords won’t be everyone’s idea of a vacation. But listen close and time becomes relative: riffs dissipate and reform, just as the freeform verses recall snatches of each other and Young and Poncho Sampedro duel in blustery counterpoint on their rusted guitars. The song may well be a conscious challenge to the shrunken attention spans of modern-day listeners, or a “fuck you” to Clear Channel and commercial radio. Really, though, it’s a vade mecum, a circuitous invitation—and a dynamite set piece in concert.
The one song that follows in the band’s tradition of storytelling is “Ramada Inn,” the rueful tale of a middle-aged, itinerant couple revisiting old friends and old demons and battling the bottle all the while. It’s a touching song, flying by at a mere 16 minutes, and would fit rather snugly on an album by the Drive-By Truckers, the closest Crazy Horse analogue in the current scene. The title track and “She’s Always Dancing” both draw on the old-as-rock-n’-roll femme-fatale trope, and if “Psychedelic Pill” could do without the weird vocal processing that obscures a worthy riff, we’re treated to a cleaner “alternate” mix on the appendix to disc two. “For the Love of Man” sounds ominously like a flaccid Christmas song, but if we conjecture that the child “born to live/But not like you or I” refers to Young’s cerebral palsy-stricken son Ben, the tune assumes far richer meaning. The 16-minute “Walk Like a Giant,” meanwhile, finds Billy Talbot hammering on the drums in primordial fashion as Young sings about the failures of his own generation’s world-saving aspirations. With a high-flying unison whistle serving in place of excess riffage, the song offers a spaghetti-western soundtrack in the best sense of the phrase: The song’s sprawl pushes the pulse and closes on a terrifying note, as the footsteps of the titular behemoth fade away only to return. These days we tend to write off boomer-rockers as “dinosaur acts”; “Walk Like a Giant” reminds us that dinosaurs used to be frightening.
There appears to be an arms race among dad rockers to see who can write the longest song in his dotage: first Dylan with his 14-minute “Titanic,” now Young with his 27-minute “Driftin’ Back.” (What’s next? Paul McCartney with a 39-minute meditation on Naked Lunch?) Psychedelic Pill is indeed a feat of endurance, for band and listener alike. But Young’s metal-folk music remains a furious glory, and his voice sounds spectacular, perhaps because he was blessed with one that sounded ancient by the age of 23. If on a song-by-song reckoning Psychedelic Pill doesn’t match Harvest Moon or even Rust Never Sleeps, it eclipses both in its sheer immersive ambition and lyrical experiments. The Young who once offered to trade “a thousand pelts/To sleep with Pocahontas and find out how she felt” is now rapping about how he “used to dig Picasso/Then a big tech giant came along/And turned him into wallpaper.” Screw rhyme, radio, and the rancid punks whose music and flesh Young has out-weathered by decades. The Horse still rides, and the rider—epileptic, hunched, but still unbowed—wields pen and guitar like the weapons they always were.