At 71, Neil Young’s unyielding dedication to defying expectations shows no signs of wavering - he’s finally slipped one of the legendary classic ‘lost albums’ that he kept recording and shelving during his 70’s creative peak amidst the live releases that form the bulk of his ongoing series of archival releases.
However, it’s not Homegrown, Chrome Dreams (probably the only unreleased record that can boast a sequel, 2007’s uneven Chrome Dreams II) or one of the numerous unheard Crazy Horse sessions from the mid-70’s that have kept Neil-nerds salivating for years.
Instead, Hitchhiker is an entirely solo acoustic set, comprising of 10 tunes recorded in a Malibu studio with producer David Briggs in one all-night, reportedly well-lubricated session in August 1976. Most of these songs were later re-recorded in often dramatically different forms for various albums released between 1977 and 2010, whilst these exact recordings – or at least totally identical takes – of “Captain Kennedy” (rescued from the obscurity it’s languished on 1980’s curiously mismatched Hawks & Doves, this haunting tune comes across here as an underappreciated gem) and “Campaigner” cropped up on subsequent releases. Few even amongst the most obsessive fringes of Neil Young fandom knew this album existed, quite a feat considering that NY devotees can usually recollect which T-shirt Young was wearing at any given show between 1969 and 2016. From memory. Without a second’s hesitation.
To be fair, it’s doubtful whether even an artist as keen on forgoing finesse if the performance captured on tape is appropriately charged as Young ever seriously considered issuing sessions as rough and unpolished as those caught on Hitchhiker as an album. Young’s label assumed the tape consisted of demos and treated the recording accordingly; listened to from 41 years’ distance, it’s difficult to disagree with that decision. Few if any of these performances reach the intensity and total commitment of, say, the recording of Young’s triumphant solo 1971 Toronto gig released as Live at Massey Hall or the superlative-exhausting, simultaneously bizarre and impossibly moving “Will to Love” (off 1977’s American Stars ‘N’ Bars), recorded in a similar nocturnal solo session around the time of the Hitchhiker session. The reportedly healthy intake of intoxicants during the session makes itself known in places, too: Young appears to forget which song he’s singing and why during “Give Me Strength”, a soaring lament of lost love that, together with the similarly previously unheard, mysterious and spooky character study “Hawaii”, provides a tantalising glimpse of the deeply buried treasures still lurking in the Neil Young Archives.
That said, most of Hitchhiker virtually oozes that difficult to define of essence of what separates a hasty run-through of a song from a truly committed performance: let’s call it inspiration, or being ‘in the zone’. Wobbly as it is, this downcast solo piano & harp take on “The Old Country Waltz” reveals a rich vein of heartbreak running through the tune, thereby rendering it totally different, immeasurably improved song from its lightweight country-rocking guise on American Stars ‘N’ Bars. Similarly, whilst nothing could ever supersede the majesty of the crunchy Crazy Horse rendition of the same song, this mournful, weary solo take of “Powderfinger” renders one of Young’s most frequently played songs completely fresh. Young’s more recent output has been justifiably criticised for the often woefully banal lyrics. Presented in this stark manner that places the spotlight on the words, the track’s tragic – and unsettling - tale of futile heroism and loss of life, which reads like a scene from a particularly gloomy art house Western, provides a compelling reminder of what a supremely gifted lyricist Young used to be at his peak. It’s this ability to take the familiar and present it in dramatically different forms, with the potential for rediscovery that this allows, which makes Hitchhiker – faults and all – a must-hear for Neil Young fans.