As part of an ongoing process of retrospective self-examination, Neil Young reunites with his creative allies Crazy Horse to once again explore the primal nature of rock 'n' roll.
Neil Young and Crazy Horse reunite for a roaming self-examination
When Neil Young resumed activity with his much-loved group Crazy Horse this year, things began much as they had more than 40 years ago: with a jam. On Neil Young's website there appeared a piece of roaming video footage that traced the comfortable disorder of Young's home studio: wires, a lamp, an old guitar. The soundtrack was no less roaming: the sound not of a finely tuned engine roaring into life, but of the fitful sparking of a classic model that has lain neglected for a while. After 15 minutes or so, the group came to rest in a stately reading of Cortez The Killer, from 1975.
It's the kind of thing Crazy Horse has been assisting Neil Young with since 1969. Once a bar band called the Rockets, they have never been tight, but they gamely keep pace behind Young as he pushes his songs further and further out from the shore from which they first embarked. Together, their music accommodates long-form guitar soloing, melancholic beauty, headbanging rock 'n' roll and beautiful close-harmony singing. There have been ups and downs (their first guitarist, Danny Whitten, died from a drug overdose in 1972), but it is in their nature to bend and not to break.
Young often turns to Crazy Horse when he wants to regroup, to circle the wagons. He has used them as ballast for some of his more fanciful adventures (say Greendale, his oddball, redneck soap opera of 2003), but they are most useful to him - as they were when punk rock was snapping at his heels in 1978 - as a way of accessing again the primal nature of rock 'n' roll. Psychedelic Pill is a record - actually three records, or two CDs - on which the band accompany Young on a long, quite strange nostalgia trip. He has this month published his autobiography, Waging Heavy Peace, and this album feels like part of an ongoing process of retrospective self-examination. The songwriting has a journal quality: complete with random notes, marginalia and unedited ranting.
Young is no stranger to looking back. Early 1970s songs like Journey Through The Past and Helpless referenced the geography of his childhood, while this year, Young and Crazy Horse have also released Americana, an album of traditional folk covers. Crazy Horse, a band whose playing has been essentially unchanged by the musical developments of the past five decades, are to Young a Proustian way of accessing, almost re-enacting, the past. If the pill of the title existed, its effect would be an engrossing audio-visual trip that allowed the listener to perceive these songs and their subjects just as Neil Young does. As it doesn't, Crazy Horse attempts this through the medium of generally inspirational guitar rock.
That process is what Drifting Back is all about. The album's 25-minute opener, it's the equivalent of a film editor "dissolving" a shot to denote a time lapse. It begins with Neil allowing his mind to wander back in time, and imagining the listener, and wanting them to feel precisely what he's singing about. But how can they, he complains, when he thinks about "how things sound now"? As the song proceeds, you discover that what he means is that, with an MP3 sound file, one only experiences five per cent of the music as the musician recorded it. It's an excellent song, but it's also a look at the past as a way of expressing disappointment with the present.
Other tracks on the album (say Born In Ontario, a lively stomp in which he references his hometown; the brief, charming Twisted Road, in which he describes a eureka moment hearing Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone) have a naïve veracity to them. Drifting Back and the penultimate track Walk Like a Giant, however, look back to find his generation's ideals have been commodified or betrayed. It doesn't always work. Drifting Back has a stream-of-consciousness quality, wherein Young reflects on how his search for enlightenment led him to the Maharishi, whom he paid $35 to receive his mantra, money that ultimately "went to the organisation". Later in the song, he thinks about how technology corporations have co-opted Picasso's art and turned it into desktop wallpaper. On the one hand, you could see this as a noble stand against big business. On the other, is it not the unsympathetic gripe of a very wealthy man who probably owns a Picasso or two? Personal feelings and technology, though, are two fronts on which Neil Young has repeatedly battled, and the outcome has yet to be decisive. As well as being the free-roaming explorer travelling his past with Crazy Horse, Young is also an audio aficionado and meticulous curator of his own legacy. For 20 years before it arrived, he talked about Archives, a multi-volume historical project, and fans waited in delighted anticipation for it. When it finally arrived in 2009, the same people were slightly crestfallen. The thing was expensive, hard to navigate and oddly weighted. It gave Neil Young fans what Neil Young wanted to reveal from his archive - not what fans wanted to hear.
Still, it is precisely this cussedness that Neil Young fans admire in him - and so his playing with Crazy Horse now is a big win for everybody. The band's magnificently unstreamlined mode boldly restates Young's ornery, outsider ethos, and he is very much in charge, but you can't not love the way the band swings. It might not be possible to live as countercultural artists did in the 1960s and 1970s, but when you go and see Young's band, it's possible to suspend that disbelief and accompany them on their refusenik journey. At a Colorado show this summer, Young debuted much excellent Psychedelic Pill material and grumbled amusingly about the internet (he announced one song wryly referencing Twitter, of all things). A Neil Young concert is probably the sole remaining mass gathering where the information superhighway is of less importance to fan and artist than the actual blacktop highway. There are moments on this album where Neil Young & Crazy Horse exemplify this blissful state. On She's Always Dancing, Neil and band offer a wonderful vocal line and an amiable, familiar groove. The short and thrashy title track, meanwhile, appears twice: once to close the album, and once as track two. It's a period piece about how watching a girl dancing "makes time stand still" and it appears first in a heavily phased mix, as if it were wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt.
Elsewhere, Young can't look back with such psychedelically rose-tinted glasses. The sentimental For The Love Of Man is reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water and positions the singer as a small man attempting to figure out what went wrong. In Walk Like A Giant, however, Young and band explore in more detail how "when the weather changed", the dreams of the 1960s generation became derailed.
If it's a fairly absurd premise - Young positing himself as a giant on the landscape of the supposedly egalitarian 1960s; a world that was going to be changed by "me and some of my friends" - it is a terrific song. A 16-minute excursion with a jaunty whistled hookline, over its duration, it finds Young cutting himself down to size. The dreams of his generation largely came to nothing. Still, if he has failed publicly, he can privately take comfort in being surrounded by familial joy.
A similar scenario, in reduced circumstances, accompanies one of the finest songs on the album. In Ramada Inn, a filmic 17-minute narrative, we revisit a relationship over the course of several road trips down the years - the couple's highway journeys much like the nostalgic trips made elsewhere in the album. There are happy times, visiting old friends they haven't seen since school. And then there are occasions when the couple is in low water financially, and the wife has taken refuge in alcohol. There is the suggestion they may resume some long-dormant illegal activity, at which point they look as if they may finally separate.
In the end, however, they ride it out. And as such, it's an agreeable analogy for the relationship Young has with Crazy Horse: this is a pairing that has racked up a considerable number of road miles. There have been some magnificent moments they can revisit. But even though there have been low points, it's precisely their mixed fortunes that prove the strength of their bond. In the end, there's no one else they would rather be travelling with.
John Robinson is associate editor of Uncut and The Guardian Guide's rock critic. He lives in London.