Old Man, Take a Look at My Gripe
It is true some artists age more gracefully than others. However, the fact that Neil Young has over the years developed a fairly prominent curmudgeon streak suggests his attitude has become more a calling card for long-time fans than anything else. Young, of course, is a legend. But one would guess he takes pride in the fact that this status is safely at his own whim.
Psychedelic Pill is a difficult record to pin down in terms of intention, as one is stuck between wondering if Young is merely mailing in a lackadaisical effort, or truly stuck in tunnel vision with an almost painfully nostalgic view. To be plain, much of this record sounds like any old band jamming at any old bar. It is clear Young still has a burning passion inside him to write, play and sing music, but the monotonous, “locked in a groove” quality of this record conveys the mood of an accidentally recorded jam session. For extra emphasis on this point, try sitting through the several drawn-out and pointless “jam” conclusions many of the songs take.
There is no doubt a large part of this strange energy at play begins with the 27-minute opener, “Driftin’ Back,” which bounces between largely repeated vocal lines—including cringe-worthy saws like “I used to dig Picasso/Then the big tech giant turned him into wallpaper”—as well as two-minute long guitar breaks for what seems like an eternity. Hardcore fans might be salivating at the idea of a crunchy epic of this nature and the concomitant, jammy leads it would suggest, but even the guitar excursions here come off more noodling than anything else.
This is not to say that there aren’t bright moments on Pill. “Walk Like a Giant” is a far more effective version of what “Driftin’ Back” was supposed to be, in almost every way. The lyric sheet is more focused, energy is higher and the guitar work is more adventurous throughout. It also probably helps its 16-minute length is a more merciful use of the listener’s ear. The song feels like a classic canon-style tune for Young, without losing the subtle hint of fresher energy. “For the Love of Man” is also a wonderful low-key number which seems like it would have been a perfect number for Roy Orbison (who Young namechecks on the album) to sing if he was still with us today. Much of the rest of the record just doesn’t seem very inspired: The amps might be distorted and buzzing, but the sound seems a little too comfortable for everyone’s sake.
At the end of the day, we’ll have to let Neil be Neil, and love him for—and in spite of—this fact. It’s the only way he’ll have it, and in some ways, the only way we’ll have him. However, when on “Driftin’ Back” Young sings, “When you hear my songs now/You only get five percent,” there might be different connotations at play than what Young himself intended.