Review Summary: Neil Young and Crazy Horse is a rock and roll institution
Neil Young and Crazy Horse is a rock and roll institution. Together they have a way of transcending praise and criticism, and in a sense it even seems futile to analyze their work. Neil Young's legendary anti-commercialist nature combines with the ramshackle nature of Crazy Horse to give their music a certain invulnerability; this is about them, nothing more and nothing less. Conventional analysis is rendered weightless by the fact that they have no statement to make other than to simply assert their presence. Never has that felt more true than when Neil decided to saddle up the Horse last year for the first time since 2003 with Americana, the ragged sing-along collection of folk classics, and its follow-up: the sprawling double album release of Psychedelic Pill.
The album starts off with Neil on his own, sounding like an unplugged take on his latest solo work, 2010's Le Noise. Somber acoustic strumming accompanies the withdrawn serenade of the opening chorus, and it is almost tangible when Crazy Horse fades in (with an interesting production trick) to join the ride. There is no turning back from there, as the crew navigate their way through the remainder of the almost half-hour sonic landscape that is Driftin' Back. On Ramada Inn, the second of three 16+ minute epics, Mr. Young uses a long love affair as a metaphor for the band itself, as the ups and downs level off over the decades to eventually become simply a fact of their existence.
As the album rides along from there, it slips the listener into long stretches of surreal trance, locked into the slow-motion gallop of deceptively simple chord progressions. These extended periods are punctuated by slashing guitar stabs and Neil's sneering yelps of dissatisfaction of today's culture of music consumerism. All the while though the record is blanketed in sustained, fuzz-saturated guitars that rise up at the perfect moments to engulf the songs with warm, reassuring bliss.
During the pensive journey you've found yourself on are a handful of shorter, more upbeat songs that serve as departures from the introspection like welcoming townships along the trail. The title track Psychedelic Pill picks up the pace with flanged-out guitars that phase back and forth like massive jet engines swirling overhead, and lyrics about party girls in shiny dresses looking for good times. Later on Neil takes a moment to pay respect to his personal roots with the nostalgically celebratory Born in Ontario, and acknowledge the life-altering moment of his first exposure to Bob Dylan in Twisted Road. During these moments of lighthearted relief Neil confides that he writes music to "try to make sense of [his] inner rage", to cleanse his soul of life's tribulations and allow himself to find solace.
The album, and the band itself, rises to absolutely monolithic stature on the closing epic Walk Like a Giant. Young ruminates aggressively about his band's youth, how he came so close to changing the world with social revolution, but decades of weathering the storm has left him feeling like "a leaf floating in a stream". However he refuses to give up the hope of once again walking like a giant. During the instrumental breaks between verses the band, backed by fleeting horse whistles and tribal grunts, weaves it's way through catharsis beneath the growing ominousness of rumbling black clouds of feedback. The skies finally open up in the final minutes as the album devolves into an absolute maelstrom. Sheets of white noise crash down behind thunderous drumming as Neil rips one of the free-est of his trademark freeform guitar solos. amongst the storm the band eventually starts banging in unison with a lurching pulse like massive footsteps that slowly fade into the distance. Finally, a single quarter-note beat of the snare drum surfaces from the murk, reemerging like a lone candle amidst the chaos. The light summons the band back for one final, wordless chorus with which Neil, as he has always been able to, finds hope within the wreckage.
Thus, the album ends with Neil Young and Crazy Horse walking like the giants that they are, with the assurance that the world can still be saved. For as long as old Neil has The Horse at his side, the dreaming will never be over.