Friday, June 19, 2020

Neil Young 59: Homegrown

While some unreleased albums gain notoriety via blurry traded copies, Neil Young is the king of unreleased albums shelved so well that they’ve never been bootlegged. Homegrown was his first legendary secret, scheduled for release in 1975 only to be replaced from the back burner by Tonight’s The Night. Save the handful of tracks that emerged elsewhere, it had never been heard outside his closest circle for 45 long years. With all the delays inherent to his Archives project, the promise that it would be finally released in 2020 seemed almost too good to be true. (Even the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way, pushing its release back a few months while fans sheltered impatiently in place.)
The biggest mystery about the album was this: seeing as Tonight’s The Night was such a dark album, just how much darker was Homegrown, even if Neil said it was a sequel of sorts to Harvest? The answer lies in his biography. Tonight’s The Night eulogized dead friends, while Homegrown eulogizes a dead relationship, with the body still warm and the legacy ongoing in the child Neil and girlfriend Carrie Snodgress shared. It was mostly written and recorded in the aftermath of CSNY’s massive 1974 reunion tour, and yet another aborted album by that crew. Neil was incredibly prolific in this period, the songs coming faster than he could record them, much less release them. His voice throughout Homegrown is weary, and Tim Drummond’s solid but wavering bass reflects the mood wherever he plays.
The first few songs do mirror the Harvest sequence. “Separate Ways” begins already in progress, a lazy lope a la “Out On The Weekend”, but even slower and much more infused with despair than simple melancholy. Having only been heard on bootlegs with the likes of Booker T & the MG’s, it’s great to finally have it in the official canon. “Try” is only slightly jauntier in tempo, with a tack piano and Emmylou Harris, and notoriously uses a phrase attributed to the woman screaming in the rain in “Harvest”. In the “Man Needs A Maid” slot is “Mexico”, a solo piano and voice vignette derived from Joni Mitchell’s prettier moments. “Love Is A Rose” was previously a pleasant trifle on Decade; here the same take, with its bum harmonica note, proves its true home. While not as raucous as the eventual Crazy Horse version, the title track revs slowly up to speed in the spirit of “Are You Ready For The Country?” And then the album goes completely off the rails. “Florida” is a recitation of a surreal dream while he and Ben Keith scrape piano strings and rub wine glass rims at an excruciating pitch. (If it sounds at all familiar, that would be due to the packaging of Tonight’s The Night, where the words were transposed over a replica of the liner notes from On The Beach.) “Kansas” isn’t as surreal, but acknowledges the waking “from a bad dream” over exploratory acoustic strumming. (That the melody sounds a bit like the Hitchhiker version of “Powderfinger” is probably insignificant.)
On the basis of the contents, “We Don’t Smoke It No More” wouldn’t stand up in a court of law, being little more than a slow Jimmy Reed blues with the barest of lyrics but cool lead guitar fighting with harmonica. Perhaps the most surprising departure is “White Line”. Even though its acoustic arrangement was revealed on Songs For Judy, this understated take (recorded at the Who’s studio, by the way, with only Robbie Robertson adding acoustic noodling) seems galaxies away from the loud Crazy Horse rendition that would be taken as standard fifteen years later. Frankly, it’s gorgeous. It nicely sets up the brilliant “Vacancy”, an edgy electric stomp like “World On A String” crossed with “Revolution Blues”, with sometime Band member Stan Szelest working the Wurlitzer electric piano. (Levon Helm is on the album as well.) “Little Wing” cleanses the palate just as it mysteriously opened Hawks & Doves, and an allegedly alternate mix of “Star Of Bethlehem” brings the program to a quiet close.
The benefit of history makes Homegrown as good as it sounds today. Despite being recorded in Nashville and on his ranch with some of the same players, it’s ragged where Harvest was smooth. Its haphazard flow is right in line with the mind of the man who directed Journey Through The Past only a couple of years before. Had it been released as originally planned, it likely would have confused and angered many, only to be debated for decades. It is the natural follow-up to On The Beach, and should be celebrated.

Neil Young Homegrown (2020)—4

1 comment:

  1. *applause*

    The most understanding and perceptive review we're likely to read.