With his 67th birthday approaching next month, Neil Young has spent much of the last year looking back and taking stock. He’s released a lengthy memoir, “Waging Heavy Peace,” and reunited with his band, Crazy Horse, after nearly a decade apart. They’ve released two albums in the last few months: “Americana,” a reinterpretation of the folk covers Young performed with regularity when he was starting out in the ‘60s, and now “Psychedelic Pill” (Reprise), a double album of new material.
The album begins with Young alone strumming a guitar, then dreamily morphs into a full-band performance, the singer locked in with Crazy Horse. It’s a cool effect, suggesting that Young and rhythm guitarist Frank “Pancho” Sampedro, bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina have been playing variations on the same song since the 1970s. Like the blues, the albums Young makes with Crazy Horse have almost become a genre unto themselves. The foursome may be interrupted by time and circumstance, but whenever they find themselves in a room together with their instruments they pick up the conversation exactly where they left off.
Here’s how that conversation resumes: Guitars echo like the cries of a big, ancient bird. Chords linger and dissolve. The beat pushes forward, unperturbed. “Driftin’ Back” carries on this way for more than 27 minutes, Young intermittently singing – more like free-associating, really – over the ebb and flow.
“Gonna get a hip-hop haircut,” he mutters, a wry toss-off that is destined to go down in Young comedic lore. Along the way, the singer touches on spirituality, sonic infidelities (“when you hear my song you only get 5 percent, you used to get it all”), MTV and Picasso. It’s more of a soundtrack to a dream than a song. The band speeds up and slows down, locks in together and drifts apart, finds new combinations of tones and overtones, in no hurry to finish.
Memory, blurred and otherwise, plays a major role in most of the songs: the phased vocals and misty reverie of the title song (also presented in a second, less ornate version), the gently amiable country lope of “Born in Ontario,” the musical epiphany of first hearing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” recounted in “Twisted Road.”
The album’s two standout songs, both more than 16 minutes long, put those memories into heart-breaking context. “Ramada Inn” traces a couple’s separation, the temporary shelter of a motel a fitting symbol of the path they’ve traveled. Once inseparable, they now share a room on the road but little else. Young’s guitar flickers in and out of what is essentially a melancholy unraveling. “Better to burn out than to fade away,” Young once sang, but in this case, fading away is all that’s left.
“Walk Like a Giant” strikes a different tone. Once, the narrator declares, “We were trying to change the world.” Of course, things didn’t work out as planned, and the anger and disappointment radiates from Young’s exploding-shrapnel guitar.
“I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream,” Young sings with increasing vehemence, disgust leaking into his voice. The long look back turns to the present, now defiant: “I wanna walk like a giant on the land.” Crazy Horse lurches in a tar pit of noise and rumbling bass tones, Young’s guitar shrieking like a trapped beast, right down to the extended final groan of amplifier exhaust. As the song fades, he and Crazy Horse refuse to go quietly.