AMERICANA, this year’s Neil Young collaboration with Crazy Horse, their first in nearly a decade, was an intriguing enough diversion from an artist whose stylistic shifts have not always been that well considered. But it was little more than a bone thrown to those who regard their long if infrequent association as reasonably consistently among the most bracing in all of rock ’n’ roll.
Its 11 oldies but oddities, ranging qualitatively from the outstanding — versions of Clementine and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain, called Jesus’ Chariot here to remind us of its origins, that comprehensively rescue them from millions of campfire singalongs — to the decidedly curious if not downright dodgy — the Silhouettes’ Get a Job and the British national anthem — certainly weren’t going to sustain us.
Fortunately it was no more than an appetiser for what has proved, despite its awkward title and questionable artwork, a particularly satisfying and satisfactory main course, not always the same thing.
Psychedelic Pill, which stretches just eight songs across 88 minutes and two discs, is Young and the Horse creating the kind of holy racket as well as they have since the last time they sounded this good, whenever that was, although the good bits of 1998’s Broken Arrow do seem like some sort of fuelling and mapping station along the way.
Young’s electric method seems ridiculously simple. It consists, on the face of it, of turning up Old Black as loud as the battered old Gibson will allow — and that’s plenty — feeding its banshee shrieks and humanoid howls back into an apparently bottomless well of serrated noise and gorgeous melody, and playing what comes out for as long as common sense will tolerate, and then a little more.
The Horse, according to Young, is very suspicious of tricks, and it corrals the sound accordingly, driving it inexorably forward, the weld between singer and band so tight you can’t see the join with a Hubble Space Telescope.
The band members are listed alphabetically in the booklet, so that Young’s name comes last, as if to reaffirm his place as part of the team, even if he is palpably the man in charge.
The point of Young in this mode is that he sounds exactly the way he sounds, his singing and playing characterised by a wonderful simplicity of line and form so that, when the guitar on the monolithic Walk Like a Giant seems briefly to hint at Hey Hey, My My, it links, subconsciously, the latter’s philosophy of "better to burn out than to fade away" to a more reflective "I used to walk like a giant on the land, now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream", eventually going out in a four-minute blaze of the sort of gloriously defiant noise once used to construct Young’s feedback symphony, Arc.
On the vast, rambling, Driftin’ Back, an astonishing 27 minutes long, Young, who recently published a memoir, literally does that, the verses, consisting more of sideways comments than formal lyrics, just a way to get from one marvellous solo to the next.
That three of the album’s nine tracks — the title song, with intimations of Cinnamon Girl in the riff, is differently reprised — take up more than an hour is not just an interesting statistic. The context they provide actually highlights the fact that the shorter ones are mainly excellent, and much more than intermittent light relief.
Sure, there are flaws here, a certain amount of sonic comfort zone and quite a lot of lazy lyricism, but on balance this is Young, if not quite in the form of his life, then at least operating at a considerably higher artistic pitch than we have a right to expect from a man recently turned 67 and well past his 30th studio album.