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Journey Through the Past

Neil Young's year of looking back

I am now the straightest I have ever been since I was 18. The big question for me at this point is whether I will be able to write songs this way. I haven’t yet, and that is a big part of my life. Of course I am now 65, so my writing may not be as easy-flowing as it once was, but on the other hand, I am writing this book. I’ll check in with you later. We’ll see how it goes.” — Neil Young, from his 2012 memoir, Waging Heavy Peace

There’s poignancy to Neil Young wondering whether he still has any songs left in him. It’s like discovering that there’s only so much sky. It’s true that he’s older now — he turns 66 next month — and supposedly he’s experimenting with full-on sobriety for the first time in nearly a half-century. Both developments threaten the unique inner chemistry that has made Young one of rock’s most prodigious (and most successful, and strangest, and let’s not forget best) singer-songwriters. And yet, no matter what, it seems unimaginable that another new Neil Young album might not arrive 18 or so months from now. We’ve long gotten used to this comfortable, if not always exciting, routine; Young’s only rival in this regard is Woody Allen, who has also produced a steady stream of work through alternating periods of inspiration and indifference, like a baseball slugger swinging his way in and out of slumps.

I wouldn’t say Young has been in a slump lately, just that he’s a former home run hitter who’s reached the point in his career where he stays in the game by dutifully grinding out ground balls. Until recently, he was ravenously combing through contemporary culture for fresh material: His 2006 album-cum-blog-post Living With War was his “political” record, 2009’s Fork in the Road his “electric car” record, and 2010’s Le Noise his “political record with Daniel Lanois’s weird, pseudo-chillwave production” record.1 In 2012, however, Young has not only stopped looking forward, he’s hinted that his personal history now represents a longer (and perhaps more creatively fruitful) stretch of road for him to travel down.

In June, Young released Americana, his first album in 16 years with the full lineup of his longtime backing band, Crazy Horse. Described by Young as representing “an America that may no longer exist,” Americana is composed of standards like “Oh Susannah” and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” that he might’ve performed in Winnipeg coffeehouses as a young folkie back in the mid-’60s, only played in the untrained, garage-rock style of his high school band, The Squires. This week Young releases his second Crazy Horse collaboration of 2012, Psychedelic Pill, a double album made up of eight originals pushed as far, wide, high, and low as they can possibly go. The first song, “Driftin’ Back,” is more than 27 minutes long. Two others run past the 16-minute mark. Musically, Psychedelic Pill might very well be the Crazy Horse–iest album ever made; lyrically, it at times resembles an AARP-era Beach Boys record. “Twisted Road” pays tribute to “old time music” like Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Roy Orbison, and how it “used to soothe my soul” and “let the good times roll.” On the title track, Young argues, “age has nothing to do with having a good time.” On the travelogue “Ramada Inn,” he goes out “lookin’ for good times,” and finds that “visitin’ old friends feels right.” This kind of revelry typically ends with two wrinkled bodies positioned provocatively in parallel bathtubs, but Young’s songs thankfully stop well before that.

Young’s non-musical pursuits from this year are helpful in understanding how Americana and Psychedelic Pill fit together. Last month, Young released his amiably meandering memoir, Waging Heavy Peace, a companion with this summer’s Jonathan Demme–directed documentary Neil Young Journeys, which was filmed at Massey Hall in Toronto during the Le Noise tour and intersperses live performances with footage of Young driving around his hometown of Omemee, Ontario, and reminiscing about his childhood.2

Like Young’s latest albums, Waging Heavy Peace and Journeys seem extemporaneous and unformed in places; it is this lack of form that is ultimately more interesting than the content, particularly in how it relates to Young’s depiction of time. Going back at least as far as the illusory “Helpless,” from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s 1970 LP Déjà Vu, Young has treated the present and the past as if they exist simultaneously, frequently imposing (if not superimposing) the latter on the former. Waging Heavy Peace moves freely between various periods in Young’s life, veering from overly familiar anecdotes about the Tonight’s the Night sessions to novelistic descriptions of his shopping excursions to Costco while on vacation in Hawaii, as if they’re equally important and occurred on consecutive days. Journeys also takes place in a nether region outside of time; here Young shuffles his back pages like songs in a set list, putting the underwritten Le Noise tracks in the same context as chestnuts like “After the Gold Rush” and “Ohio,” as the feelings in those old songs obviously remain real for him in sometimes troubling ways.

On Americana, Young’s unsubtle point is that playing classic folk songs in an irreverent fashion reveals the core values and violent vices that unite our culture with our ancestors, which means our ancestors aren’t really dead because they are us and we are them. On Psychedelic Pill, the message is murkier and more introspective. About half of the time on this record, he’s playing the longest, squawkiest, most exploratory guitar solo of his life, stopping only occasionally to utter a few scattered sentences or to take a brief break between songs. His words are nostalgic, but the music is unsettled and bottomless. Neil Young remains a wanderer, and Psychedelic Pill contains some of the most remote and least developed soundscapes he’s ever constructed. It is the best album he has made in maybe 10 years — it’s my personal favorite since his last record with the full Crazy Horse, 1996’s Broken Arrow — but it doesn’t feel like a grand statement; it’s more like a grand voyage in search of a statement.

This probably can’t be stressed enough: Waging Heavy Peace is a profoundly weird book. Instead of writing an actual memoir about his life, Young wrote a book about writing a memoir about his life. Waging Heavy Peace is full of asides expressing wonderment and pride at its own existence; Young is so jazzed that at one point he starts plotting out future volumes about his personal minutiae, like the self-explanatory Cars and Dogs. Elsewhere he pulls back from the nonexistent narrative to moonily gush, “Am I a dreamer or what?” Waging Heavy Peace is a disappointment in terms of establishing a coherent story arc for Young’s life. But it does give you a sense of what it’s like to live inside Young’s head, a place filled with the imaginary history of his model-train community and debates about the legality of burning wood in fireplaces. It’s like nowhere you’ve ever visited, which is about all you could hope for.

Waging Heavy Peace, it turns out, also doubles as the very lengthy liner notes for Psychedelic Pill, his Crazy Horse album about making a Crazy Horse album. Young worked on the book as he prepared to reunite the band after a period of estrangement, and he writes about how he plans to record in spite of a dearth of new songs. “Set up in there and record, leave the equipment at the ready for a year or so until we have a great record,” he writes. “Just keep playing and let the muse back into the fold. Gently now. No searching. No working. No trying. Just let the spirit come back in and don’t be greedy.”

Nowhere on Psychedelic Pill is the motto “just keep playing” more applicable than on the remarkable “Driftin’ Back,” which directly references this process of waiting for the muse. “Dream about the way things sounded / write about them in my book / worry that you can’t hear me now / or feel the time I took,”3 he sings in a brief acoustic prologue before an extended Crazy Horse jam is slowly cross-faded into the mix. Like much of Psychedelic Pill, “Driftin’ Back” is an empty vessel that is filled with the iconic sound of Young’s “Old Black” Gibson Les Paul — that gnarled, atonal, ethereal, electrified chicken-wire rumble dominates Psychedelic Pill, weaving through vast expanses created by the reliably elementary backing of drummer Ralph Molina, bassist Billy Talbot, and guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro. Young does muster up some likably chunky and relatively concise rockers in “Twisted Road,” “Born in Ontario,” and the title track (which appears twice in heavily processed and non-heavily processed versions) that follow his standard “Drive Back”/”Fuckin’ Up”/”Piece of Crap” three-chord model. But the majority of Psychedelic Pill is post-song, with melodies and lyrics acting primarily as placeholders. On the awe-inspiring “Walk Like a Giant,” the failures of boomer nation (“We were ready to save the world / But then the weather changed”) are dispensed with perfunctorily so Young can get down to a vision quest in the margins with his shape-shifting guitar, which rises and falls like discharged molten lava during several breathtaking instrumental passages.

“To me, that band is a vehicle to cosmic areas that I am unable to traverse with others,” Young writes of Crazy Horse in Waging Heavy Peace. On Psychedelic Pill, Young is traversing his final frontier in the twilight of his career. The “better to burn out than to fade away” line from “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Blue)” has been thrown back into his face for years, but there’s dignity in how Young has chosen to slowly dissipate. This is a record without resolution. Even when it ends, you can imagine some of the songs continuing on forever, so long as Molina keeps a backbeat as erratic yet inevitable as the march of time. This is good, because I’d prefer to believe the sky truly is infinite.

Filed Under: Psy, TV

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden

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