Few performers can pull off an unaccompanied, starkly orchestrated, all-acoustic set and leave listeners wanting more. As a litany of past releases and more recent "official bootlegs" have shown, Neil Young has more than mastered the super-intimate setting. Some...
Few performers can pull off an unaccompanied, starkly orchestrated, all-acoustic set and leave listeners wanting more. As a litany of past releases and more recent "official bootlegs" have shown, Neil Young has more than mastered the super-intimate setting. Some of his most haunting, beautiful and unforgettable work has emerged from just himself, a guitar or a piano and nothing else. Something inexorable and ineffable lies at the heart of Young''s solo performances, something that words would probably only cheapen. Needless to say, few others seem capable of pulling off such stunning solo sessions. "Hitchhiker," recorded back in 1976, between Young''s "ditch" albums and the classic "Rust Never Sleeps," perfectly showcases this side of Young, complete with a self-professed drug-soaked performances and an intensity that just doesn''t seem to exist anywhere else in quite the same way. Young has evolved into a kind of musical singularity that defies any imitation because of the sometimes ferociously personal elements that emerge from his work. He remains inimitable to this day, one of the final vestiges of a time when people accepted popular music as "art" beyond mere marketing hype. The world has, of course, inevitably become a different place and this fascinating collection allows an almost guilty time-traveling peek into a bygone era.
Though "Hitchhiker" contains numerous already released songs, it doesn''t matter. These versions sound new and unheard. The album''s first song preserves Young''s nonchalant "you ready, Briggs?" For those who don''t know, "Briggs" was David Briggs, Young''s longtime collaborator who passed away in 1995. Some consider "Hitchhiker," recorded at Indigo Ranch recording studio in a now heavily eroding Malibu, a tribute to his lost friend. "Pocahontas" features the actual track that graced "Rust Never Sleeps," though sans the numerous overdubs and sound effects layered on some three years later. This ranks high among Young''s most powerful songs, complete with chilling references to massacres of Native Americans, Buffalo killings, and eyes that have turned to blanks. It seems to encapsulate the alienation likely experienced by modern Native Americans as they recall the past and gaze into a strange present. The later overdubs undoubtedly added a new dimension to the song, but this stripped down version proves that the song didn''t require any further adornment.
"Powderfinger," known as a highly distorted thundering rock epic, here becomes a disturbing and tragic ballad. The acoustic only arrangement conjures up folk singers in front of open fires spinning musical yarns of murders, crimes and life lessons learned a little too hard. The mix sounds almost invasively intimate. Perhaps we''re a little too close in this instance? Regardless, it makes for a powerful and stunning listen. "Captain Kennedy" appeared almost as-is on "Hawks and Doves," replicates the mood of "Powderfinger." Boats, guns, war killing and ever present mortality once again permeate the lyrics. "Hawaii" tells the story of a lost vitamin addict. The song has never appeared on another Young album, though it apparently has appeared occasionally in concert. The same holds true for the unreleased "Give Me Strength" with its voluminous, sometimes dizzying, chord changes. An ode to dealing with harsh reality, the chorus relates a simple message: "Give me strength to move along, give me strength to realize she''s gone." "Ride My Llama" also appeared on "Rust Never Sleeps," but loaded with numerous treatments. This version also omits the gorgeous soft howling bridge between verses and even feels a little incomplete compared to its later incarnation. "Hitchhiker," with a thundering rhythm deals with Young''s life of drug experimentation with brutal honesty. From hash, amphetamines, Valium, paranoia, grass, cocaine and others, Young just lays it all out bare. The song feels like a confession or self-recursive journalistic reporting. "Campaigner," possibly one of Young''s best unreleased songs, did appear in truncated form on 1977''s "Decade." It certainly feels relevant today, Richard Nixon or not. "Human Highway," extracted from its "Comes A Time" atmosphere, feels more melancholy. The line "how could people get so unkind" really resonates here. The album ends with Young on piano singing "The Old Country Waltz," which opened the album "American Stars ''n Bars" a mere year later.
Some retrospective distortion may cause listeners today to ask why Young''s record company refused to release this collection as-is back in 1976. Though it definitely stands on its own as a solid piece of work, it also evokes the "classic Neil" era that fans likely yearn for on multiple levels. Decades later, it recalls a lost age and forlorn nostalgia likely saturates the cochleas of today''s listeners, especially those with direct memories. Not to mention that the rejection probably allowed later re-recordings and re-interpretations to exist. After all, "Rust Never Sleeps" would not sound the same without "Pocahontas," "Ride My Llama" or the heavy rizzing "Powderfinger." "Hitchhiker" as a whole likely works best as a gem lost in a vault suddenly resuscitated a little past its prime time. Strangely, the record company may have been right about this one, but their order now stands defied just over forty years later. Take that! Regardless of its fascinating background, or of how soused Young was during the recording or whether or not it would have made a great album back in the mid-1970s, "Hitchhiker" definitely works fantastically in the format that Young decided to finally release it in today. Basically, a "could have been but wasn''t" lost treasure that shows another side of some of Young''s best songs. Any fan of Young''s acoustic side will relish every nanosecond. Hopefully more material similar to "Hitchhiker" sits in the vaults awaiting rediscovery.