Wednesday, October 31, 2012
I'll Take This Psychedelic Pill Anytime You're Offering
I went after him a little bit in my last post. Now, I think I get it. You can't get the book without the CD. This is the soundtrack. These are songs he was waiting for the inspiration to write that he kept referencing in the book. This is the way he remembers it this time. The book is not a biography at all. It's a snapshot, a balance sheet of the moment, and only those thoughts that rise to the surface, however randomly, matter to him.
This has proven to be a Neil-heavy Rocktober for me--writing about Zuma, reading his book, referencing him in posts or using his songs to reinforce posts. I also found online a treasure trove of people doing Neil Young covers. All of that's been a good thing. I like going all in with Neil. So now I'm going to do this Neil-style. He doesn't like to edit himself, a trait has led to some beautiful lyrical associations and some brilliant first takes, as well as some songs that I wanted to take back to the store to get a refund. He likes the first take on things as much as anything, doesn't want to overthink.
And now I'm not going to, either. I'm sitting down with his new CD, listening to it for the first time, and I'm simply going to record my reactions as they come to me. I'm cleaning up a room, too, trying to busy up a house where the heat isn't working so it will get warmer, maybe you'll hear the vacuum cleaner in the background or realize that I've hit pause for a minute while I change out the laundry or go upstairs to check on the hurricane's devastation. Once, I thought I saw you in a crowded, hazy bar...
"Drifting Back"--Young opens his double-CD with a 27 1/2 minute statement of purpose. Who else does that? The song begins acoustically and then the full band drifts in behind a multi-voice chorus. He references his book, Picasso, religion, the sound limitations of mp3s, how he deals with his anger, and how corporations ruin things. His words are very simple and repetitive (he used to dig Picasso until a corporation turned him into wallpaper), always returning to the mantra "I'm drifting back." In between his random thoughts are guitar stretches that maybe stretch on too long, that maybe aren't as transcendent as Young's best instrumental work, but each time it starts to get a little tiring (and let's face it, our ears weary of soloing more than they used to) he pulls you back in with his words. If it's possible that a near-30 minute song could set the tone for a 90 minute CD, then that is exactly what "Drifting Back."
"Psychedelic Pill"--the title track is an examination for a party girl "looking for a good time." It's a slight story, not all that revelatory, but the music is strong, especially Young's solos which hearken back in style and sound to his very first solo album 42 years ago. The whole song has a wash over it, a phase shifter or something that takes it underwater and back up again.
"Ramada Inn"--on first listen, sounds like the centerpiece of the CD. It clocks in at over 17 minutes and opens with one of his solos that you would like to go on for as long as he would make it go on. It's the story of a marriage, the different stages as the years go by, especially now in its latter stages, including a battle with alcohol. The melodic solos are the perfect complement to the sweet but realistic words. One of Young's soloing patterns involves playing around the melody when the melody is strong, as it is here. While "Drifting Back" challenges the listener's patience just enough that he is aware of its length, "Ramada Inn" takes the listener beyond time. The song is the reality, and little beyond matters.
"Born In Ontario"--A quick, happy, autobiographical reminder of Young's roots, it's musically-reminiscent of one of his country songs or "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," but without the underlying disillusionment of the latter. It's the second song where Young references his anger, but otherwise it's a bit of a ditty.
"Twisted Road"--Almost echoes "Born In Ontario" with its sense of nostalgia and country structure, but this one is an homage to Young's influences like Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Roy Orbison. What's funny about this reimagining is that now these people play "old timey music," a label once relegated to really old traditional country tunes.
"She's Always Dancing"--The second song on the CD about a woman or girl who seems to be in party mode. There is no doubt that Neil Young likes to watch women move. Many of his best songs--"Like A Hurricane," "Unknown Legend," "Slip Away" and countless others--zero in on a woman in a social setting that the narrator can observe and understand the mind of. Like the other longer songs (this one runs 8 minutes), the soloing paces the song. This song moves in too many places for me to get it on the first listening. I can follow the lyrics, but I can't follow the solos, if that makes any sense at all. The title says it, but I'm not sure what it is. Several of the songs have interesting ending, and this is one of those.
"For The Love Of Man"--sounds like an outtake from Harvest Moon. Probably about his severely-handicapped son. Not a pretty or unpretty song, in spite of it being the tempo-changing song on the CD. I'm sure this is an important, personal song, but it sounds like a misfire to me. Both the melody and the message are too meandering. A ballad that really only finds itself in the final repeated question, "I wonder why?"
"Walk Like A Giant"--from the opening searching minor chords and background whistling, you can tell that this one is an epic. And that Neil is going to solo until he feels the time is right to sing the words. "I used to walk like a giant on the land" are the opening lines. Powerful stuff happening here and you can't quite figure out what it is, but you know you're going along. Interesting chord changes. Great guitar sounds. A shift to a look at the 60's/70's and when Young and his friends were going to change the world. The song has a ton of different parts and sensibilities. I'm hooked. The song is a journey and seems to brush the edges of any number of popular songs, including Young's. This song is a middle finger to time, this is a defiant yelp, this is a revelation coming from a 65-year-old man and his age-appropriate band. "Walk Like A Giant" concedes nothing to mortality, to popular music, to convention, and as it descends into chaos, it echoes the riff from "Hey, Hey, My, My." And then the whistling again. And then the sounds of the giant walking. Recalling Arc/Weld and Sonic Youth. And Metal Machine Music. And a bombardment or a pummelling. And then, somehow, it comes back. Into primitive, percussive brilliance. Or a train. Or Ragged Glory's songs' end noises beamed out into the universe.
"Psychedelic Pill (alternative mix)"--this takes the wash away. And I like it better. It's doesn't gain any more weight, but it gains more clarity.
What I've always loved about Neil Young's music with Crazy Horse, especially the live shows (and the studio records like Ragged Glory that might as well be live shows), are the way the songs create a sonic force field that welcomes you in and protects you from the outside. "They all sound the same," says a heckler who opens the live set Year Of The Horse, to which Young responds, "They're all the same song." That's not a glib response. I get exactly what he means. Neil Young at his best welcomes you into that idiosyncratic world.
Psychedelic Pill does exactly that. It isn't going to awe you like a hungry new band would; it's going to show you that Jethro Tull was wrong with their notion that someone could be "too old to rock and roll/too young to die," and that Pete Townshend's naivete that anyone would "hope I die before I get old" is silliness undercut by The Who's own efforts to hang on. But no one keeps the rock flame alive like Neil Young. He does it with words a little and with guitar a lot, and he tells us that he isn't interested in elder-statesman status or an emeritus position. He's just going to, as Michelle Shocked's friends who have settled down in "Anchored In Anchorage" exhort her, he's going to "keep on rockin'." What else is there?
BTW, that pill looks more like a frisbee, Neil.