Neil Young: back in the saddle
Noise and fury in Psychedelic Pill, Young's latest collaboration with Crazy Horse.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse
The biggest show I played with my first band, Great Days of Sail, was as the support act for the Californian singer Joanna Newsom at the ICA in London. Music isn’t a competitive sport but if it was, we lost – Newsom, then just 22 and travelling with her dad, was riding high on the acclaim for her brilliant first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, and was pretty much untouchable. Later, in the bar, I ran into Mark Bowen, cofounder of Wichita Recordings, who informed me quite abruptly that my stage presence had reminded him of Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. I was crestfallen. Couldn’t he see that our songs, shambolic solos and warbling harmonies were all part of a stoned and reverential attempt to be Neil Young and Crazy Horse, circa 1974?
Bruce Springsteen once said: “The way that Elvis freed your body, Bob [Dylan] freed your mind.” Young has freed us from nothing so specific; rather, since 1966, when he co-founded the seminal Americana band Buffalo Springfield with Stephen Stills, he has embodied an aimless, vagabond freedom that resists easy categorisation. He has been a pioneer of psychedelic rock (“Broken Arrow”); a hard rocker (“Like a Hurricane”); a harmonica-blowing folkie (“Tell Me Why”, “Little Wing”); a member of the hippie supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; a country singer awestruck by Willie Nelson (the album Old Ways); even a dabbler in Krautrock (Trans) and grunge (Mirror Ball).
Yet underpinning Young’s mercurial nature has been a self-belief that has taken him to heights few others have reached. As he writes in his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace (Viking, £25), published last month: “The muse has no conscience.” For Young, music is a “storm on the senses, weather for the soul, deeper than deep, wider than wide”. In other words, it’s not something to be trifled with. If exploring these depths, these expanses, requires writing from the point of view of a salmon looking to mate (as Young does in the cringe-making but weirdly moving 1976 song “Will to Love”), so be it. Anyone fearless enough to use the line “My fins were aching” in a drawn-out metaphor about the search for the ideal woman surely deserves respect.
It’s this willingness to make mistakes as part of the creative process that I find so admirable about Young. When everything comes together, as in the song “Harvest Moon” (1992) or the entirety of the 1974 long-player On the Beach, the results are so transcendent that any detours along the way seem justified. Indeed, in some cases, the detours are the point: Tonight’s the Night (1973), recorded after the drug-related deaths of Young’s guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, draws much of its affective power from the fluffed notes, tequila-ravaged vocals and half-written lyrics that charge the record with a profound sense of peril.
Young’s latest album, Psychedelic Pill, reunites him with long-time collaborators Crazy Horse, a band known (unfairly, in my opinion) for being rubbish. Young is aware of their technical limitations but stresses their primal ability to “groove”; a few years ago, he told his biographer Jimmy McDonough, “It’s not that they fuck up that makes them great. That’s a by-product of the abandon that they play with.”
If abandon is your poison, Psychedelic Pill contains a lethal dose. Unlike some of Young’s uncharacteristically hesitant recent work, it’s a collection that roars with the sheer joy of playing loud. The opening track, “Driftin’ Back”, meanders for more than 27 minutes, piling extended guitar solo upon extended guitar solo; Young attacks his strings as if he has just invented the concept of improvisation. Likewise, “Walk Like a Giant” and “She’s Always Dancing” stretch out simple tunes with lengthy instrumental breaks that, though often shabby, are never wearying or entirely pointless.
The lyrics, on the other hand, can lapse into prosaic nonsense – it’s depressing to emerge from a room-shaking sonic battle between lead guitar and rhythm section only to be presented with a curmudgeonly rant about the poor sound quality of MP3s (as in “Driftin’ Back”). But this is all part of the Neil Young trip. In “For the Love of Man”, a wonderful, faintly Roy Orbison-esque ballad that shuffles in towards the end of the album, he sings: “In the billowing sky/Let me wander there/Let me wonder why.” By wandering and wondering, by always taking the crooked path, Young leads the listener to the most unexpected delights.