‘Psychedelic Pill’ hard to swallow despite artist’s previous success
At 66, rock icon Neil Young can be considered a marathon runner of the music industry. With 35 studio albums to his credit, the songwriter has remained surprisingly relevant decades after “Harvest” and “After the Gold Rush” went platinum. But with an extensive catalog also comes time for reflection on previous perspectives, and it is this mindset that seems to fuel “Psychedelic Pill,” Young’s latest work released Oct. 30 with backing band Crazy Horse.
Though the flower-powered, acid-induced haze of the 1960s brought accessible folk to Young’s first few albums, he disowned the idealism of the hippie movement when personal struggles with drugs and family appeared in later decades. His unwashed mane and avid cocaine use later turned into fatherhood and music experimentation and as a result, Young has returned with a newly-energized form of Americana.
But it’s this new understanding of music from the past that makes “Psychedelic Pill” hard to digest. Much of the album is comprised of what seems like Grateful Dead-inspired takes, a handful of tracks easily surpassing the 15-minute mark. Though some aren’t nearly as mind-numbing, Young’s decision to allow “Pill” to open with a 27-minute testament to jam bands is shaky at best, especially considering that most audiences can barely stand songs beyond the length of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
That’s not to say the album lacks variety, for Young has managed to combine most styles into a pastiche of his own career. “Born in Ontario,” an exaggerated song chronicling the songwriter’s Canadian roots, contains country twang that ironically echoes that of longtime American rivals Lynyrd Skynyrd. “Pill’s” shorter tracks recall well-known parts of Young’s career, infusing flanger-happy Americana with honest, soulful lyrics. These portions serve as the only combatants to the exhausting progressive songs found on the majority of the track listing.
It’s worth noting that Crazy Horse, a band that has collaborated with Young since 1969s, is what makes “Psychedelic Pill” live up to its name. “Walk Like a Giant” is “Pill’s” only redeemable epic, and it pushes Horse to extremes of energy and musicianship while Young remains ringleader of his decades-long troupe. “Ramada Inn” also allows room for the band to show off the hard virtuosity found in parts of their solo catalog. Unfortunately, the progressive partnership does the bare minimum to distract from the album’s mediocre content and staggering length.
While his latest release is far from the least admirable in his discography (see 1995’s “Life”), Young’s “Psychedelic Pill” has an unconventional presentation that’s hard to get past for the average listener. Some songs show glimpses of the stripped-down and honest version of Young fans know and love, but the epics distract with little more than spiraling instrumentation. If there’s one thing to be learned about hindsight, it’s that it’s often 20/20 — a fact that can end up destroying material that’s already pure at heart. That said, it’s best to stay gold.