So last night I hung out with Neil Young and his producer David Briggs down in Malibu. It was really cool. Just the three of us. Neil sat down at his guitar and started playing all these songs while David ran the mixing board and, like, by the end of the evening they’d unveiled this whole batch of killer tunes.
Ok… so… while I didn’t get to actually hang with them in the studio, listening to the newest Neil Young archive release, Hitchhiker, it almost felt that way. A recording made in 1976 at the dawn of an incredibly prolific period for Neil, this unreleased session remained in the archives for all these years; most of the songs found their way onto subsequent albums including his legendary Rust Never Sleeps, Comes a Time, American Stars and Bars and even the more recent Le Noise.
So why did they release this now? Well, why not? Neil has steadily been opening up his archives — especially with the fabulous multi-disc box set called, fittingly, Archives Vol. 1 Hitchhiker is another important piece of Neil’s puzzle, presenting early and remarkably full-formed versions of songs that went on to become fan favorites and even some bonafide classics within the context of his song catalog.
The standard weight vinyl pressing of Hitchhiker is fine, well centered and quiet. Neil’s acoustic guitar, vocal and (sometimes) harmonica performances sound great here, cleanly recorded, very simple and intimate. If you have a subscription to the Tidal music service and want to hear this in the MQA format at 96 kHz, 24-bit resolution, you can click here for that link which sounds good too, albeit a different listening experience.
To that point, it was kind of refreshing to open this album up and find it was a standard pressing album — this album feels like a record from the seventies! It would have been overkill to put it out on 180-gram (or higher) vinyl. Hitchhiker even comes with a big fold out poster containing lyrics for all the songs — Neil used to include fold out lyric inserts in many of his seminal early 1970s albums, particularly his breakthroughs After The Goldrush and Harvest. So there is a bit of period nostalgia going on here and that is not a bad thing.
Is this an essential release? Well, that depends on how into Neil’s music you are. Fans will want this, for sure. Relative “newbie” fans who yearn for more of Neil’s acoustic flavored music they might have first discovered on later period albums like Harvest Moon may well enjoy this record for its stripped down splendor.
My favorite tracks thus far on Hitchhiker are the the acoustic Rust Never Sleeps-era songs “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger.” I am also very fond of the album closer “The Old Country Waltz” which Neil plays poignantly on just piano and harmonica. Hearing this song broken down to its core — it ultimately came out as the lead track on the American Stars ‘n Bars album in 1977, in a much more fleshed out, big country-fiddle band production — is really almost haunting, bum notes and all.
Hitchhiker is a fine reminder of the power of Neil Young’s pure songwriting creativity, a glimpse into an important transitional period when he was about to redefine himself for the ages. In that context, Hitchhiker is essential listening.