At this point Neil Young’s catalog of recordings have become legendary parts of the folk rock pantheon. Albums like “Harvest” and “After the Gold Rush” produced such classic songs as “Old Man,” “Heart of Gold” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” inspiring leagues of songwriters along the way. By the mid-70s Young was nothing short of rock royalty, with the world at his fingertips.
It’s no surprise that any Neil Young fans would be rapid to get their hands on any unreleased material, especially from that fabled time period. On September 8th they get that chance.
“Hitchhiker,” a collection of stripped-down recordings that Young recorded in 1976 at a studio in Malibu, now sees its release over 40 years later. The ten songs on the album will be mostly recognizable to the majority of loyal Young fans. Some of the songs on “Hitchhiker” would go on to be developed into sprawling anthems for his famous “Rust Never Sleeps” record with Crazy Horse. Others would appear in later albums in different forms. But these recordings are the raw material, the basic songs that Young had just put together.
Featuring mostly just Young and an acoustic guitar, “Hitchhiker” is wrapped in intimacy. It’s a picture book of simple portraits before time and memories begin to layer meaning on them. The effect is striking, Young’s voice shining out in all its twang and shimmer as he tells story of heartache and being lost on the road. Not surprisingly, he pulls it off well.
The emotional pull of the album is its affecting sparseness. The songs are exposed down to their roots, and this fact only makes them more powerful. On one of the never-before-released tracks, “Give Me Strength,” Young causes my skin to prickle with the bittersweet loneliness of the road, making me tremble with heartache at his words:
“A lonely man I made myself to be
It’s not as bad as some things I have seen
The picture painted here
Is not a dream
The only reality
Is the way it seems
The happier you fly
The sadder you fall
The laughter in your eyes
Is never all
Give me strength to move along
Give me strength
To realize she’s gone”
This is Young at his best. Simple rising chords ring out with power behind his affecting his words, and his unique vocal delivery tugs at the heartstrings.
Other songs feel undeveloped. “Hawaii” is full of potential, but seems like only half the song it could be. Still, it’s better than any other song by most artists. “Ride My Llama” isn’t quite the song it would come to be with Crazy Horse, though it still manages to shine through in all its acoustic glory.
One of the greatest appeals of “Hitchhiker” is the chance to hear these bare-bones versions of songs Young would later develop into anthems. “Human Highway” is full of powerful guitar playing and arresting lyrics. “Powderfinger” feels like story-time around the fire, and my ears are glued to the haunting tale that Young spins.
“Hitchhiker” is a great listen, alive with the power and emotion of one of rock’s best songwriters.