Young and the Horse reclaim The Spook on 'Psychedlic Pill'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
Throughout Neil Young’s 2002 biography, Shakey, there is much discussion of “The Spook,” a mythical vibe that surrounds the best of Young’s music and, specifically, his music played with Crazy Horse and recorded by David Briggs. The Spook was a term that was difficult to define but impossible to mistake, immediately recognizable in his most inspired work. “Tonight’s the Night,” for example, had The Spook. “Danger Bird” had The Spook. “Love and Only Love.” “Sleep With Angels.”
Briggs was unmatched in his ability to corral Young and keep him focused on what was best in his music, and while his death in 1995 didn’t completely silence Young’s ability to be effective on vinyl, it did seem to leave Crazy Horse reeling a bit.
But after nearly 15 years of mixed results, and eight years of simply being on the shelf as Young played with other folks, the Horse is getting back into a spooky groove. Psychedelic Pill, their second album of 2012, is a brash slice of guitar jam nirvana, two CDs or three LPs of heavy rock and jams that come together to forge an incredible listening experience. It’s long, heavy, dark, mysterious and, to be sure, it’s never short on The Spook.
The album begins with the hushed tones of Young strumming on a loosely tuned acoustic, serving as a reminder of the hot streak he’s been riding in his music lately. It started quietly with 2009’s Fork in the Road and was more obviously pronounced on 2010’s Le Noise, but Young has entered a phase that seems like it could rival his late-1980s/early-1990s run that took him from Freedom to Mirrorball.
That notion is hammered home as the acoustic fades out and blends into a real, honest-to-god Crazy Horse jam, one full of rusted frets, chunky leads and chords that will swoop and travel and glide and, ultimately, last nearly half an hour. “Driftin’ Back” is a display of Crazy Horse’s quiet confidence,and the comfort they share in their sound and in playing with each other. Truly, no one sounds like Crazy Horse, not even Young when he plays with other people, and that reminder alone would’ve made Psychedelic Pill worth the price of admission.
But we already got the reminder of the Crazy Horse sound this summer with the release of Americana, a collection of folk songs recast as stomping tunes. Psychedelic Pill is more than that. It’s the ego of Crazy Horse on full display, and that sensibility is one that should thoroughly be indulged. Past the long solos and mistakes and clunky rhythms, the thing that made this band unique was their uncompromising nature in the face of their sneering contemporaries, the confidence that kept them going despite criticisms from fellow musicians and confused fans.
This record, certainly, isn’t for them. The first song lasts two sides of a vinyl record. “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant” both top 16 minutes. Young has long been beyond the point of editing himself, but it’s only when the songs are as good as they are here that that instinct serves the listener so well.
Young still has his listeners in mind, too, and takes a moment to call out the sorry state of digital sound in the 21st century. In the latter half of “Drifin’ Back,” he renounces the flimsy digital age and reminds the listener of how they’ve been cheated:
When you listen to my song now, you only get five percent
You used to get it all
You used to get it all
Outside of the studio and the stage, Young has worked to deliver his music in the highest fidelity possible, driving the rise of Blu-Ray audio, developing new digital technologies and keeping his album in print on vinyl. But in the barn and on this album, he’s made his best argument for intense listening in years.
A Crazy Horse jam, when it’s going well, can be listened to for hours. There’s a soothing comfort in hearing those guitars drone on and on, but if they’re feeling rough or edgy, then it’s not as satisfying. On “Driftin’ Back,” it could be 1976 or 1990 again, but it’s 2012. This is music that is ageless. Young’s guitar and the rhythm of the Horse are in perfect balance again, and when that happens it’s a beautiful thing.
“Walk Like a Giant,” which has already been heavily featured in the Crazy Horse shows preceding this album, is an absolute monster. The lyric features Young in his finest mode — singing about being on top and in charge again, pining for absolute control — while the band behind him just keeps charging and building with a haunted air. The image of these giants from the past, ghosts of Briggs and Danny Whitten and Ben Keith plodding and stomping through the land, is as befitting the Horse as any I can recall.
This is a band that is tapped into the good stuff. This is a band that has The Spook again, one that last really showed glimmers in the late 1990s, but not this effectively since 1990’s Ragged Glory. It’s all there in the guitars, in the drums, in Young’s courageously nasal vocal delivery.
But, simply, Psychedelic Pill has The Spook. If Crazy Horse means anything to you, that should be enough to push this music into your hands.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org