Nick Bollinger teleports to 1976 via a lost album from the Neil Young archives.
To call this a new Neil Young album might be putting it a bit strongly.
It opens with ‘Pocahontas’, the surreal dream of a song originally heard on the acoustic side of Rust Never Sleeps, one of Young’s acknowledged classics. The version here is not much different, though it misses the whooping space noises that offset the rustic campfire quality of Young’s strumming.
It was recorded a year or so before Rust Never Sleeps as part of an entire acoustic album, apparently completed but shelved until now. And in part, it can be heard as the sketchbook for Rust.
If you know the electric side of that record, then it might surprise you to find that ‘Powderfinger’, best known as a grungy amped-up tour-de-force, started as another acoustic ballad, not too different from ‘Pocahontas’.
And if it’s Young’s acoustic balladry you like then there’s a load more of it here.
There are ten songs on Hitchhiker, only two of which have never been heard before. But there is a coherence to them as a collection, which probably comes from the fact that they were all recorded in a single night – August 11th 1976 – with only Young’s producer, the late David Briggs, and the actor Dean Stockwell in attendance.
‘Hawaii’, one of the two songs here that have never turned up before in any other form, is an intriguing portrait of a character from Neil’s paranoid past. And it fits right in with the mood of the whole collection, which is quietly unsettling.
There are moments of wonder and beauty, but also visions of violence and dread, and Neil seems to be reporting from an uneasy vantage point somewhere between the two. Apparently, he presented the ten tracks to his record label as a complete album, in the order they were recorded. But to the label honchos it sounded like demos, and they sent him away to polish them up.
The next album he released, American Stars and Bars, would include just one of them, and others would appear over various discs right up to Le Noise, just a few years ago. And these versions do sound like demos. But, as is often the case with demos, they have a presence and immediacy that teleports you to the time and place they were made.
And there are worse things than being teleported to a night in 1976 when Neil Young sat down, had a drink and a smoke, and played a bunch of new songs to a couple of mates who I imagine were quietly amazed.
Hitchhiker is available on Reprise