The signature Crazy Horse move is The Huddle. No matter how big the stage, Neil Young, Billy Talbot, and Frank “Poncho” Sampedro will inevitably find themselves tightly packed in front of Ralph Molina’s drums, bobbing and flailing in such close proximity that it’s a miracle they never crack guitar necks. It’s an aggressively insular move for a band playing to thousands, an unambiguous signal that the feedback storm they are conjuring is often more about them than us.
That self indulgence is the beating heart of each time Young deigns to bring the Horse back out of the barn, even as the decision excites his fanbase like no other. To the point, the latest Crazy Horse reunion was announced with the leak of an instrumental jam on the chords to “Fuckin’ Up” and “Cortez the Killer” that ran over 37 minutes. Then there was the first official leg of the comeback: Americana, where Young fed old-as-dirt traditionals such as “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” into the Crazy Horse engine, followed by an arena tour that filled nearly half the setlist with unreleased material..
But Psychedelic Pill might be the most accurate studio portrayal of The Huddle yet. Three songs gallop past the 15-minute mark, and the opener “Driftin’ Back” approaches a half hour, quickly weeding out the faint of heart. They are the three longest songs ever released by Young (if you don’t count Arc) and they feel like it. “Driftin’ Back”, in particular, is nearly trance-inducing as it locks onto the same chord progression, interrupted only occasionally by mini-rants about hip-hop haircuts and mp3 sound quality..
Yet other than these marathon challenges, playing with Crazy Horse is playing it safe for Young: You know exactly what you’re going to get, and there are none of the pleasant surprises of 2010′s excellent loop-dabbling Le Noise. One song, “She’s Always Dancing”, even sounds like the band just took an instrumental rehearsal of “Like a Hurricane” and added a new vocal track over the top– which is good enough to make it the second best jam on the record. “Ramada Inn” is paint-by-numbers Crazy Horse, indistinguishable from any of their late-period outings beyond its refusal to end.
It will also surprise no Neil Young fan that most of the songs here are about aging, continuing a roughly 50-year streak of obsessing over getting old. So much of Psychedelic Pill is Young looking back, from the long-married couple of “Ramada Inn” to the classic rock name-dropping of “Twisted Road”. He even reminisces his way back to the cradle, with “Born in Ontario”, a brief country-rocker that’s a welcome breath-catcher, even though it bears a giant hole in the shape of deceased longtime collaborator and auxiliary Horseman Ben Keith’s slide guitar.
But Neil’s particular flavor of nostalgia has always been a little on the sour side. When he references the Woodstock Generation, he tends to do it with a scowl, angry about the failure of the hippie dream even as he still clings to its promise. Psychedelic Pill suggests a softening of that harsh stance, particularly on the saccharine “Twisted Road” with its irony-free shout-outs to Dylan and the Dead and the distracting “trippy” effects that ruin the title track.
Thankfully, the album’s final epic, “Walk Like a Giant”, scrawls a jagged line through that cuddly history with a single chord change, coming immediately after an immensely dopey verse about how Neil and his friends were gonna save the world. In fact, “Walk Like a Giant”, is easily the best studio Crazy Horse performance since Ragged Glory. Once again, the formula is unchanged– it even swipes pretty heavily from the “Hey Hey My My” riff– but between the verses the Horse is whipped until it foams at the mouth. Everything great about Neil Young, electric guitarist, is on full display, his singular tone veering from feral growls and feedback to blistering fury while the other three egg him on with subtle, perennially underrated counterpoint.
Despite the patience required to get there, the track underlines the greatest trick of Neil Young’s long career: that his most self-indulgent mode can also be his most crowd-pleasing. At this point, the “these old guys still know how to rock!” angle for Crazy Horse is itself old enough to collect Social Security. But there’s enough life and fuck-you attitude left in Psychedelic Pill to remind a listener that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” wasn’t necessarily about dying young, so long as you avoided phoning it in. If circling the wagons is what it takes to keep Neil Young’s fire raging, then just be happy he lets us pay to watch..