Neil Young’s run of albums from 1969’s Neil Young to 79’s Rust Never Sleeps is arguably one of the greatest of any artist, and without doubt my favourite. In 1975 he had just released the dark masterpiece On the Beach, and as was his want, decided a change of direction was in order. At the time he was going through a divorce from actress Carrie Snodgrass. Young wrote some of his most personal songs about the experience, recording them and readying the release of the album titled Homegrown.
As legend would have it, Young played the rough mix of Homegrown at a party, attended by members of The Band. The end of the tape contained one of the most raw rock and roll albums ever recorded, Tonight’s the Night, which had remained unreleased for a couple of years. Upon hearing these corrosive dark uninhibited songs Rick Danko (the bass player of The Band) suggested to Young he must release it. So he did, and Homegrown remained on the shelf, until now.
If you’re a rabid and voracious Young fan like me, this is the holy grail of his unreleased work. What surprised me about the style of these songs is how laid back and country-tinged so many of them are – in a way it feels more natural than some of the cuts on the similarly styled American Stars and Bars. I take nothing away from that album; it’s a cracker, but there’s a homely worn-in melancholy to these songs that immediately drew me in to Homegrown that American Stars and Bars just can’t match.
The opener ‘Separate Ways’ sets the tone, the song beginning on a dark chord and not letting up in its confessional and beautifully sad way. Young’s languidly fluid acoustic guitar infuses most songs here, and it sounds more brilliantly captured than ever. Second track ‘Try’ was the first released, and it’s the one I’ve got to know best. Young’s steel guitar player was the late Ben Keith, who began his career as a young man playing on Patsy Cline records such as the classic ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’. His playing on ‘Try’ and other tracks here is the most like that particular style, and lends the songs a mournful, atmospheric sound.
Of the 12 tracks, five will be familiar to many fans as they were released on other albums or compilations. One of the standouts is ‘White Line’, previously on 1990’s Ragged Glory is a foot-stomping rocker. Here it’s all acoustic, with Robbie Robertson from The Band on lead, and it’s wonderful to hear them duet. Others include ‘Love Is a Rose’, a hit for singer Linda Ronstadt, a track that contains one of Young’s most timeless melodies.
The most rocking song here is ‘Vacancy’, which will delight fans of Young’s distorted electric playing and his excellent harmonica, as both combine to play the solo. The title track has a more melodic style than the previously recorded, and raucous, Crazy Horse version This and its accompaniment, the blues fog of ‘We Don’t Smoke it No More’, are two of Young’s most blatant stoner anthems. A misstep is the nausea-inducing spoken-word stoned silliness of ‘Florida’, with Young drawing his finger round the rim of a glass the only music here.
I’ve seen Young play live a number of times but two particular performances stand out. One was when he played ‘Cortez the Killer’ in Aberdeen, the only time I’ve seen him play that masterpiece. While he was deep in the solo it had the effect of making me feel like I’d stepped into a different dimension, somewhere else but here. Last year I saw him in Hyde Park and his solos during ‘Like a Hurricane’ were like a vacuum, something elemental and made of pure emotion, bringing me to tears. The man is like a shaman, a force of nature, and to hear music that has remained unreleased for so long in all its glory is a light in the dark for me.
Neil Young’s Homegrown was released on 19th June 2020.