Before I start this review, let me establish that I have been a big-time Neil Young fan since 1970, when I bought the classic ‘After the Gold Rush’ album by mail order from Richard Branson’s then fledgling Virgin Records. Since then I’ve bought a shedload of Young’s albums.
Like many great artists and bands who established themselves in the 1960s and 70s (e.g. Dylan, Bowie, Van Morrison), the question gets asked, does the new material stand up to the stratospherically high standards of the early work? Like many others, I admire Neil Young for just doing whatever kind of music he likes. He doesn’t generally do what the audience or the record company want. After producing the highly polished ‘Harvest’, his most commercially successful album, he deliberately trashed his own reputation in the 1970s by producing three successive uncommercial, ‘low-fi’, albums generally referred to as the ‘Ditch Trilogy’. With the passage of time these albums, particularly ‘Tonight’s the Night’ and ‘On the Beach’ are now regarded as among his best. Then he fell-out with Geffen Records in the 1980s, when they tried to scupper his efforts to put out a country music album. They wanted a record in what they considered was his more characteristic ‘rock / folk’ style. He told Geffen what they could do. What a guy!
Over the years Young has dabbled with all sorts of styles to suit his current muse, even electronic music using voice vocoders. As he gets older he seems to get more cantankerous and perverse. He will never, thank goodness, be ‘middle of the road’. For many fans (including me), the really classic Neil Young sound is the one he produces with his long established backing band, Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse (Poncho Sampedro, guitar; Billy Talbot, bass; and Ralph Molina, drums) produce a pretty basic sound, but it is perfect as a backing to Young’s songs and his unique guitar playing. ‘Psychedelic Pill’ is Young’s first album of original new music with Crazy Horse for around a decade, so it has been eagerly awaited.
So, is it any good? Well, it’s probably the best studio album Young has produced with Crazy Horse in nearly two decades – in fact since the highly regarded ‘Ragged Glory’ (1990) and ‘Sleeps with Angels’ (1994) albums. Several of the songs on the album (eg. ‘Walk Like a Giant’, ‘Driftin’ Back’) are extended pieces in the mode of some of his past classics such as ‘Like a Hurricane’, ‘Down by the River’ and ‘Cortez the Killer’. While the album is immensely enjoyable, I do have reservations. Firstly, some of the songs are just too long (particularly ‘Driftin’ Back’, which clocks in at 27 minutes and outstays its welcome). Even his classic older lengthy songs didn’t usually go over 8-10 minutes). Secondly, I doubt that the songs on the new album will be regarded as among his finest in years to come. Finally, the album is very much retreading old musical ground. A Neil Young album that ‘Psychedelic Pill’ resembles in style is ‘Ragged Glory’, although the latter is by far the superior record.
However, there is certainly some splendid electric guitar playing and great band performances on the new album, in the mode of classic songs like ‘Cortez the Killer’, so fans will probably not be disappointed. I am also finding that the album sounds better with successive plays, so that is encouraging. It is always difficult assessing the ultimate reputation of an album at the time it comes out.
So, to conclude, if you are a fan of classic Neil Young and Crazy Horse, then buy ‘Psychedelic Pill’. However, if you are new to his music, then buy one of his brilliant 1960s or 1970s albums. Or if you want a good Neil Young compilation buy ‘Decade’, which is crammed to bursting with excellent songs.
Review by John Bentley