Neil Young: His Back Pages

 

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One word best describes Neil Young: prolific. Not only has he produced a new album about every year of his career, his is busy remastering and releasing his old catalog.  Along the way he has dug into his archives to release old Buffalo Springfield demos and alternate takes.  He has also reached back into his early past to release his own demos and a series of live albums from his early solo years.  He even found time to develop his own streaming service because he felt other services provided inferior technology.  Very prolific.

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Let’s take a look at what he’s pulled out of his cellar.

The Archives Vol. 1 1963–1972 – Spanning the first decade of his career, this set revisits music from his pre-Buffalo Springfield days, Buffalo Springfield and early solo work.  He also includes three collections of live performances, including two CDs of solo performances.  The man works magic with just an acoustic guitar, piano and harmonic. Neil Young has never been accused of having a great voice but he can generate a range of emotion and effectively convey poetic stories of across the human experience.   A stickler for quality, the set also showcases Blu-ray and DVD discs of music.

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Official Release Series Discs 1–4  This set contains his first four post Buffalo Springfield albums (Neil Young / Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere / After the Gold Rush / Harvest).  This album set is the mother lode. These albums established Neil Young as a major player.  While his first solo release Neil Young, sounded like his Buffalo Springfield work, traditional production and structured arrangements (even backup singers), what soon followed did not.  Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, took Neil in a much different direction.  The big production was gone, replaced by lean, hungry rock and roll. The next two albums, After the Gold Rush and Harvest are my favorites. Every song a tasty morsel.  From rockers to soft heartfelt ballads, some of the finest songwriting you’ll ever hear.  It would be easy to write thousands of words on the beauty and impact of these albums but you’ve heard them, you’ve probably owned them.  The remastered sound is a slight improvement over the previous CDs as the sound was always good.  It doesn’t get better than this.

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Original Release Series Discs 5–8  (Time Fades Away / On the Beach / Tonight’s the Night / Zuma) This set represents Neil taking his act off the road into the ditch, that’s how he has often described this period.  After enjoying his biggest radio hit, “Heart of Gold”, he decided to go a different direction. Most musicians crave getting their music on the radio and climbing high on the charts, Neil Young never seemed concerned about that, it fact, it was almost a curse.  Time Fades Away is a live album of his tour after Harvest, but it contains all new songs. That’s a novel approach!  It was recorded direct to disc and contains a few warts as well as great performances.  The tour itself was problematic for him and the resulting record, after its initial release, was never offered on CD.  Collectors salivated, hoping for the eventual remastered release of this record on CD.  It is a very good album, not perfect, but an important part of this 1970’s work.  On the Beach is a ragtag group of songs, okay as a record, but there is no real focus.   Tonight’s the Night is a tortured and melancholy affair. Around the time it was recorded, two of his associates died from drug-related causes. The songs seem unpolished and reeking of gloom. If you are looking for another “Heart of Gold,” keep looking, you won’t find it here.  The album was recorded in 1973 but not released until 1975.  It got no love from the record company and not much attention from the public, though it has a curious place in his legacy.  Zuma is more of a return to Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere type songs.  Sometimes harsh and ragged, it is underrated Neil. This may be the album fans need to discover.  Zuma also contains a rare Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young harmony, “Through My Sails,” a song from the aborted CSN&Y reunion album. “Through My Sails” is a beauty and hints at what CSN&Y could have been.

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Original Release Series Discs 8.5–12 (Long May You Run / American Stars & Bars / Comes a Time / Rust Never Sleeps / Live Rust) The final set of his 1970’s output, this collection returns to a more commercial and focused path.  Long May You Run started as a Crosby, Stills Nash & Young reunion album.  Songs were recorded, harmonies sung, and the effort fell apart in fights.  Crosby & Nash departed and recorded their own album (a brilliant one if you are keeping score) Young and Stills regrouped as a duo.  Crosby and Nash voices were wiped from the Young and Stills songs.  The resulting effort was the Stills/Young band’s Long May You Run. The album is typical Neil, ballads and harder rock, with an occasional laid back country beat.  His songs are well structured and several are among his best.  There are a couple of throwaways but even those are pleasant.  Stills’ contributions are okay, but no singles in the group.  At this point in his career he was more into Latin and jazzy arrangements, and less into folk-tinged radio friendly songs. Think Steve Winwood during that time frame and that’s where Stills was. In fact, Stills plays mostly piano and organ on his contributions. If you thought Stills and Young would face off against each in dueling guitar solos on this album, you’d be wrong.  Each must have brought their own songs; this was not really a collaboration.  The resulting tour fell apart along the way with Young abandoning his partner.  American Star & Bars is another ragged collection of tunes that range from quiet ballads to country waltzes to electrical storms.  My two favorite songs are “Like a Hurricane”, a whirlwind of electrical lightning solos, and “Will to Love”, a rambling solo effort recorded in front of a popping fire.  Comes a Time is an acoustical album, not quite After the Gold Rush, but quiet and thoughtful.  Mellow replaces rage.  “Lotta Love” is quite good as an acoustic effort but took on a magical glow when Nicolette Larson got a hold of it and rode it up the charts as her first record.  Rust Never Sleeps was a return to commercial and critical acclaim.  His poetic storytelling was very focused and he crafted some imaginative folk images and sage advice about staying relevant and hungry.  The resulting tour was recorded (and filmed) and released as a tour d force and one of the best live albums (Live Rust) of the decade.  The album, spanning his career, seemed to blend together into a seamless musical journey.

Buffalo Springfield is four disc journey through all things Buffalo Springfield.  Assembled by Young, it provides many alternative versions, demos and many of the album tracks from the original albums. Neil Young is very much an archivist.

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Strangely, the long version of “Bluebird” is not in the collection.  Listen to songs like “Expecting to Fly,” “Broken Arrow,” “On the Way Home,” “Out of My Mind.”  These are mature statements from a kid barely out of his teens.  The songwriting structure and deep lyrical content show a songwriter not cranking out boy-girl love songs, but statements of original thought, inquiries into the human psyche, reflections on American history and a growing social consciousness.

Journey Through the Past is a soundtrack album to a film.  It has mostly music from various stages of Neil Young’s career.  There is one new song, “Soldier.” This soundtrack is mainly a curiosity more than an essential album for fans.  There are alternate versions of previously released songs.

In 2017, Young released Hitchhiker, a solo collection of songs recorded in 1976 but not released.  The album contains versions of songs that would later populate other albums and two songs never released. The album of solo performances was recorded in one session, without overdubbing or studio cleansing, apparently unimpressed his record company and was shelved among the archives. Naked and intimate if was called.

A lot has been written about Neil Young as a songwriter and performer.  He seems to write nonstop, moves from style to style, musicians to musician, inspiration to inspiration.  He is unafraid of change or of abandoning projects. Often, songs intended for one album show up years later on an album with a completely different vibe or rewritten lyrics.   Nor is he afraid of sounding old school or not commercial. He does not waste time or money recording, his albums are generally inexpensive to make (compared to the average recording project) and you won’t see massive marketing campaigns.  His legacy of music is massive, even if you only consider his released catalog.  His archives of demos, live recordings and half finished projects must be incredibly large.

His work with Buffalo Springfield made him known but his 1970’s recordings defined him.  These recordings are a curious collection of styles but his ballads are soft and delicate in haunting melodies and lyrics like snowflakes dancing in your mind.  His hard, pounding electric songs take you on a power glide around and inside the hurricane, his guitar solos shooting out like arcs of lightning.  Neil Young’s back pages contain grit and stories of love and days gone past.  In an 11 year stretch, he composed and played the equivalency of a shelf of America’s finest writers.  Turn the pages.

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