Opinion | A refreshing blast from Mister Young’s past
Neil Young releases an album he recorded in the mid-70s but never published. ‘Homegrown’ is a bittersweet and intimate record that should delight his fans
Many believe that the early to mid-1970s were probably the Canadian-born rock musician Neil Young’s best years. It was during those years that Young produced some of his best studio albums, notably the much acclaimed Harvest, which came out in 1972, but also On The Beach (1974) and Tonight’s The Night (1975). So when Young announced that he would release in late June an album he had recorded during that period but one that he had kept under wraps for 46 years, anticipation among his fans worldwide ran high. They weren’t disappointed.
Homegrown, a studio album of a set of 10 songs, was recorded in 1974-75. Chronologically, Homegrown ought to have come probably after Harvest but before Tonight’s The Night but for some reason (and theories about that abound), Young, now 74, kept it in abeyance. Sometimes, such “lost" recordings by well-known artists can turn out to be bummers—when they come out years later, they leave fans disappointed. Homegrown, however, is such a refreshing blast from Young’s past that it deserves to be counted as one of his best studio albums.
Young has been an incredibly prolific musician. He has released 40 studio albums in a career that began in the early 1960s and is still flourishing. Last year, with his old band Crazy Horse, he released Colorado, a passionate set of songs on which Young touches on themes related to the continuing degradation of the environment, issues that he, as an activist, has been especially concerned about. It was a stunningly fresh album of original songs from the septuagenarian and can be counted as one of his classics.
Homegrown is different. It is a set of bittersweet love songs, recorded when Young was around 30 and going through a difficult emotional phase in his life. He was breaking up with the actor Carrie Snodgress, with whom he had had a son, and the album’s songs reflect the mixture of emotions that he might have been undergoing—hope, regret, sorrow and fond remembrance. In his website-cum-vault, Neil Young Archives, a treasure trove of his work and a compulsory destination for his fans, he wrote: “It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind." There are other theories too about why Young did not release that album. One of them is that perhaps he was not happy about the way the recording had shaped up.
But as it happens, Homegrown is a fan’s delight. The stripped-down, predominantly acoustic-sounding songs on the album fit so neatly between Harvest and Tonight’s The Night that listening to it now can seem uncanny. And once you know the backstory, the songs provide an intimate insight into what he was going through—and you can sense the contrast between his earlier album, Harvest, and Homegrown. On Harvest, in the song A Man Needs A Maid, which he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, Young was inspired after watching Snodgress in a film and falling in love with her. Homegrown’s song are, obviously, quite different.
The opening track on it, Separate Ways, is a poignant, bittersweet song about breaking up. Young sings: I won’t apologize/ The light shone from in your eyes/ It isn’t gone/ And it will soon come back again. That is followed by Try, a song with the fragile hope of reuniting with his lost love. Later in the album comes White Line, another bittersweet song, and Vacancy, where he yearns for his lost love. Young has performed some of Homegrown’s songs in his live shows through the years but on the album, played together as part of one set, they sound stunningly confessional and intimate.
There are a few weird tracks too on Homegrown. Florida, a spoken-word riff on gliders crashing into buildings; and a stoner ode, We Don’t Smoke it No More, are two examples. Yet the rest of the album makes up in heaps for such aberrations. Star Of Bethlehem and Little Wing are among the songs that he has performed or released on other albums recorded much later but their early versions on Homegrown are superb. There are additional bonuses for fans of 1970s rock. On two tracks, The Band’s drummer, the late Levon Helm, is featured, while The Band’s Robbie Robertson plays guitar on another, and the country and folk singer Emmylou Harris provides backing vocals on two songs.
Young has been an evergreen musician. After nearly 60 years as a professional musician, he still turns out albums with a passion that is exceptional among rock’s surviving old stars. His albums even in recent years have been largely consistent in terms of quality. And his voice, with its trademark nasal twinge, has aged well. But for his fans, Homegrown, a surprise flashback from the 1970s, will be a much-cherished album, fitting like a missing link into the artist’s phenomenal legacy.
On his archives, Young regularly releases old, forgotten recordings. And there is talk that two more yet-unreleased albums from the 1970s—one of them titled Chrome Dreams, recorded towards the end of that decade—may soon see the light of day. If Homegrown is a preview of what could come, his fans may be in for a treat.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.