(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)
Last night, as is often the case, I worked late, not leaving the office until the sun was a mere hint on the horizon. Cars and trucks lumbered along the road, some with their headlamps on, others only illuminated by their running lights. The official end of summer has yet to come, but it’s done. Kids are back in school. Family vacations are done. Days are growing short.
On the ride home, I thought of days that used to be. I thought of tomorrow, and what the new day might bring. I also powered down the windows and cranked up one of my favorite albums to listen to when driving: the last thoroughly great Neil Young album, Psychedelic Pill, which I also deem to be one of the decade’s best albums. Recorded from January to March 2012, and released on October 30th of that year, it finds Neil backed by Crazy Horse, and features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.
In short, it’s nine-songs strong. (Eight, really.) Eighty-plus minutes. It burns, yearns, questions, looks back and ahead, and does so with an eye that’s at once cynical and naive.
“Driftin’ Back,” the lead-off track, clocks in at 27 minutes and change, and finds him musing about the sound quality of MP3s, meditation, religion, art, and the corrupting nature of Big Tech, among other things. (“I used to dig Picasso/Then a big tech company came along/and turned him into wallpaper.”) The stream-of-conscious nature of the lyrics is echoed by Neil’s swirling and twirling guitar, which slithers one way and then the next, all while rising and falling like the star we call the sun. It’s epic.
The concise title track follows, and echoes “Cinnamon Girl.” Lyrically, it’s about nothing less than looking for a good time – and, in a foreshadow of a song to come – getting lost in music. It’s followed by the near-17-minute “Ramada Inn,” a slice-of-life portrait of a longtime marriage in stasis. He drinks too much. She wants him to talk to old friends who gave it up. Yet they love each other. They do what they have to. Neil’s solos are both mournful and majestic, with his guitar flying out of the thick rhythms laid down by Crazy Horse only to return to the groove in time for the next verse. Rolling Stone hailed it as one of the year’s Top 5 songs.
“Born in Ontario” and “Twisted Road” both look back at the days that used to be. The former explores how one’s hometown stays with you wherever you may roam (“you don’t learn much/when you start to get old”); and the other digs into the joy that the music of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Roy Orbison gave him.
“She’s Always Dancing” is the deliverance that “Psychedelic Pill” hinted at, painting a picture of a woman losing herself in the sweet cacophony of rock ’n’ roll: “She wants to dance with her body left unbound/She wants to spin, and she lives in her own world/She wants to dream like she was a little girl.” Although her age is never given, we know she’s no longer young – and yet the music, as it does for all of us, rejuvenates her. (That’s my take on it, at any rate.)
The gently haunting “For the Love of Man” hones in on a difficult question that has, no doubt, circled through the minds of many parents of differently abled children: “For the love of man/Who could understand what goes on/What is right and what is wrong/Why the angels cry, and the heavens sigh/When a child is born to live/But not like you or I.”
“Walk Like a Giant” is a thunderous, 16 1/2-minute summary of one of life’s cruelest lessons: The hopes, dreams and beliefs of youth are slowly crushed with every tick of the clock: “I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream.” That doesn’t stop us from attempting to color-correct our faded idealism, mind you. Giants lumber on. Sometimes they falter. Sometimes they don’t. But they don’t give up.
An alternate mix of the title tune closes things out in fine fashion. Who isn’t looking for a good time? Who doesn’t get lost in music?
The track list: