July 01, 2009

Neil Young Unearths the Goldrush with Archives, Vol. 1

In a career as uncompromising as any in popular music, Neil Young has seldom sought the creative path of least resistance, instead yielding to the mystifying influence of his own muse. With unwavering conviction—believing that the best, most inspired works flow through, rather than from, one’s consciousness—Young is a rare figure in rock, one who is inextricably attuned to his art while, at times, shamelessly expressive of his most visceral and vulnerable emotions.

Long running on his own wavelength—and not just in the realm of music, incidentally—Young has produced a canon so prolific and singular that chronicling it has posed a host of problems, not least of them being its eventual scope and format. After years of false starts and thwarted expectations, though, the first installment of what promises to be a monumental undertaking has ultimately come to fruition.

Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972), comprises ten discs total. Nine of these feature music culled from Young's stints in Sixties bands from the Squires to the Buffalo Springfield, and continuing through sessions with Crazy Horse and on solo LPs like Harvest and After the Gold Rush (including assorted extras like a career timeline and memorabilia). The last disc features Young’s surreal 1973 film, Journey Through the Past. As a whole, the complete collection yields a genuinely compelling perspective of the rock legend.

Perhaps the most important factor to consider, at least in terms of its contents, is that this collection does not boast dozens of previously unreleased songs. There are no lost classics that have been unearthed for this project. Rather, it contains previously unreleased versions of songs (many of which are classics) culled from their respective era.

That said, among the music discs are formerly unreleased mixes (either mono, stereo, or promotional edits), live performances, or various pressings. Point blank, this is not a substitute, what-could-have-been view of Young’s career (a la Springsteen’s Tracks box), but rather an everything-goes exhibition of one particular creative period.

Given that most of the material is well-known—at least to Young’s fans, which are who this set is geared toward—what’s worth noting is not so much which songs work and which do not (as most fans have surely inferred as much by now), but instead what distinguishes the music of this era from later ones of his career.

For the most part—with the radio edit of “Ohio” being the strongest exception—the version of Young heard here is not the angry or irascible one who more frequently populated later albums like Tonight’s The Night, Freedom, and Ragged Glory. The artist heard here lay more in the singer/songwriter vein, brimming with feral self-awareness and rich perceptions. Even on familiar material, hearing alternate versions of songs like “I’ve Loved Her For So Long” (previously unreleased, live), “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” (first pressing), or an accelerated take on “Sugar Mountain” (previously unreleased demo), Young’s genius is palpable and promising.

Considering that Young’s career has never been much of a linear one—his sidetrack projects have often been more interesting than his original plans—the timeline feature on each DVD reflects those excursions and his overall efforts especially well. Plus, certain stops along the way yield further music performances (including a live montage taken from the Buffalo Springfield’s final performance) as well as photos, images of news clippings and other relative souvenirs.

Also not linear in any chronological (or even much of a logical) sense, Journey Through The Past finds Young around the time of the making and promotion of his 1972 album, Harvest. If not for a few select performances of its songs (including “Alabama” and “Are You Ready For The Country?”) and an in-studio interview with DJ Scott Shannon, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was simply a slapdash home video that Young once spliced together in his garage. The film does underscore Young’s eccentricities and humor quite well—and hardcore fans will undoubtedly enjoy his oddball antics—but it doesn’t do much to underscore the quality of his music.

Regardless, overall Archives, Vol. 1 overwhelmingly succeeds in exhibiting the breadth as well as the context of roughly the first quarter of Neil Young’s extensive career. While not for the casual fan, it yields a mind-bending and magnificent portrait of the artist as a young man.