With nine tracks totaling more than 87 minutes in length, Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s latest release “Psychedelic Pill” could be a difficult one to swallow for listeners who like their music wrapped up with little pink bows in three minutes or less.
As Homey the Clown would say, Neil Young “don’t play that.”
Instead, Young offers up a robust array of distortion-fueled dissention that would be right at home in the days of peace, love, and Day-Glo paint. He comes across as a grizzled veteran of the scene for whom defiance is a blessing and rock and roll is a vehicle for solving all the world’s problems.
What makes Neil such a legend is his unyielding devotion to the truth and lack of enthusiasm for letting others define him or who he’s supposed to be. He dons his lumberjack wardrobe of flannel and denim with style, openly shares his distaste for current social trends, and never allows the flavor of the month to dictate what emanates from inside his studio walls.
He’s one of the industry’s few remaining iconoclasts, so, when he puts out an album of this magnitude at age 66, people should pay attention or suffer the consequences of ignoring one of the best records of 2012.
The opening track, “Driftin’ Back,” clocks in at 27:36, which immediately disqualifies it from airplay on commercial radio, but I’m sure that such an idea never entered Young’s consciousness while writing.
You see, he’s not catering to an audience whose only conception of a great recording is the latest static output from whomever Clive Davis happens to be touting that week. He’s challenging the status quo by putting out a multifaceted album whose greatness may not be solidified until 20 years down the road, so allow yourself ample time for the material to permeate your cerebral cortex before reaching a verdict.
The fact that much of the album strings along in a wistful haze of hippie nostalgia could turn some people off, but those who have been with Neil from the beginning should have no problem latching on.
For example, “Walk Like a Giant” finds him singing “I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream,” which expresses his dissatisfaction with the current state of the union while also hinting at a degree of helplessness that many Americans feel in the face of ongoing economic stagnation.
Later, he adds “Me and some of my friends/We were gonna save the world/ We were trying to make it better/We were ready to save the world/But then the weather changed/And the white got stained/And it fell apart/And it breaks my heart.”
Here, we see Young making an overt homage to the sixties and everyone who devoted their time and resources to bringing the cause into the minds of citizens who previously felt it didn’t concern them. He knows that what occurred back then was a genuine, focused, and necessary component to raging against the machine of social control, so his sardonic assessment of 2012 acts as an indictment of how apathetic today’s youth population has become compared to his generation.
Another theme that appears to occupy Young’s state of mind is subcultural incorporation, because he doesn’t sound pleased with the watering down of culture for the sake of mass consumption.
“I used to dig Picasso/Then the big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper,” he howls at one point during “Driftin’ Back,” which really digs at the notion of people minimizing art to suit their own desire to show others how well-rounded they are.
This reminded me of a Seventeen magazine article I saw once featuring two teenagers decked out in clothes designated “Emo” by the magazine’s writers while the headline read “Am I Emo?”
The article proceeded to inform the reader that wearing certain shoes, carrying certain books, and talking a certain way would suddenly make them a legitimate member of the subculture without ever delving into the tangible ideas that underlie the “Emo” philosophy. This was posturing at its most overt, and Young is attacking exactly the same type of store-bought belief system throughout “Psychedelic Pill.”
Instead of a counterculture, we have a counterfeit culture devoid of all passion or originality, and that, I think, is what really breaks Young’s heart in 2012.
Of course, he does lighten things up on the joyful “Born in Ontario” as well as with the “Cinnamon Girl”-esque crunch of the title track, but the album’s gravitas is established during the more seething moments.
I expect some listeners to complain about the meandering guitar solos that don’t deliver an instantaneous payoff and others to claim that Young is clinging to a lost era, but what else is new?
Immediate gratification has corrupted society’s thinking to such a degree that people dismiss things if they don’t grasp all concepts within the first 30 seconds of the experience. If this describes you, “Psychedelic Pill” probably isn’t going to rattle your bones enough to be worth the time.
However, if you have an open mind, Neil Young & Crazy Horse have crafted a transcendent album whose riches become more plentiful every time you listen.
Perhaps some of that hippie soul will rub off on you.
“Psychedelic Pill” was released on Tuesday and is available wherever records (and digital downloads) are sold.