Two New Releases from Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Music Review)

Psychedelic Pill cover

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill

Neil Young and Crazy Horse got back together this year for their first joint album in a decade. The result, Psychedelic Pill, is long enough for two CDs despite having only nine tracks total. It’s the kind of sprawling mess we’d expect from the band, for good or for ill. In this case, it’s somewhat disappointing. The music is still excellent, with carefully-sloppy jams that have aged much better than the grunge scene they inspired, but they can’t find anything to sing about.

The twenty-seven minute opener, “Driftin’ Back”, epitomizes the album. Young opens with “Hey now now hey now now, I’m driftin’ back”, an explicit callback to past hits. It’s the only good lyrical choice in the song, which otherwise has awkward statements like “I used to dig Picasso, then a big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper”. Those would be difficult lines to sing in any song, but Young spits them out like he’s not even trying. Fortunately, the singing is sparse during this half hour, and most of it is taken up by a pleasant, if forgettable, groove.

The other long, winding songs are a little more successful lyrically, though still not up to the hits of the past. There are also several short, punchier songs to add variety: The reverb heavy title track is fun, but the extra alternate mix is unnecessary. “Twisted Road” may be the only unqualified success on the album, though admittedly that’s because of its limited vision: That song is a quick, heartfelt ode to the past yet again, this time referring to Dylan and the Grateful Dead as his “old-time music”.

Americana cover

Neil Young and Crazy Horse – Americana

It’s kind of funny that they used that term, because Neil Young and Crazy Horse also released an album with their renditions of actual “old-time music”. Called Americana, it’s obviously a warm-up exercise for a band, with in-studio discussion between songs and a variety of approaches. Though a few attempts aren’t successful, the results are frequently excellent. That shouldn’t be a surprise: If Psychedelic Pill provides a great performance of mediocre songs, then of course they could apply themselves well to time-tested classics.

Crazy Horse’s meandering style doesn’t always work well with these more direct folk songs. “Clementine”, for example, is actually a simple joke (I bet you didn’t know that!), but in their hands it becomes more of a drawn-out shaggy dog story, and while their version of “Tom Dula” has an excellent build-up, the tension they create actually gets dropped a couple times over its eight-minute length. But in  “Gallows Pole” and “Travel On”, the band finds the perfect mix of their style with the songs’ needs. They travel outside their comfort zone on “Get A Job” with an energetic vocal arrangement that has more in common with barbershop quartets than grunge rock. And while it’s difficult to take “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain” seriously today, they perform “Jesus’ Chariot” with a fervor fit for a revival service. I find “This Land Is Your Land” and “High Flyin’ Bird” to be pretty bland, but the only true misstep is “God Save the Queen”, which they merge with “America the Beautiful” in a way that honors neither song.

Most people I’ve talked to were disappointed with Americana, but I don’t agree at all. I think that a lot of people have trouble seeing through the clichés that these songs have become, but fortunately Young was able to do so. It may be uneven, but the successes easily justify the whole project. Neil Young and Crazy Horse did release an album worth buying this year, but it’s not the one that you might expect.

Psychedelic Pill: C+

Americana: B

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