The Lowdown: At an age when many of his contemporaries are bidding farewell to the music industry, Neil Young has shown no signs of slowing down. The 74-year-old singer-songwriter continues to record as prolifically as ever, provide a voice of comfort through his fireside concerts, and, more than ever, tend to his legacy. The latter project has included making sure his music, new and old, is preserved in the finest audio quality for future generations and releasing an expansive archival series that contains live recordings, rarities, and albums thought to be lost to either the vault or time. Young’s most recent release, Homegrown, falls into that “long-lost” category.
The album, shelved for more than 45 years, in Young’s own words, acts as “an unheard bridge between Harvest and Comes a Time,” two of the songwriter’s most indelible masterpieces. But, perhaps even more intriguing, Young penned a letter to fans explaining that the pain over his separation from actress Carrie Snodgress — the catalyst for the project — caused him to put the album aside. “I just couldn’t listen to it,” Young writes. “I just wanted to move on.” While 2020 will go down as a “lost year” in the minds of some folks, hearing a “lost album” from Neil Young that might also turn out to be one of the great breakup albums of its era is at least a little consolation.
The Good: Heartbreak drips from the album’s lone single, “Try”, one of several previously unreleased songs on Homegrown. The plodding, country-tinged plea mixes hope (“We got lots of time/ To get together if we try”) with melancholy (“Walking in the rain/ And coming home dry/ There’s something missing there”) and an aw-shucks honesty (“Holly, what a mess”) as only Young can. Backed sparingly by Emmylou Harris, it’s a perfect example of how Young has always been able to capture the most complicated pain through the simplest words and melodies. And sorry, but it’s damn-near impossible not to crack a smile when a much younger Old Shakey shrugs: “I’d like to take a chance/ But, shit, Mary, I can’t dance.” It’s corny but undeniably heart on sleeve.
Other unreleased tracks, like opener “Separate Ways” and “Vacancy”, serve the album well. The former opens the record like a pair of dragging bones, Young sorting through the ambiguity of the past, present, and future that overlap during any parting: “And it’s all because of that love we knew that makes the world go round,” he reflects, but at the same time, admitting that he’s “more alive somehow” since going their separate ways. It’s a push-and-pull that exists throughout several songs; this isn’t mere pining for the one who got away. “Vacancy” is the psychedelic jam that “We Don’t Smoke It” never builds to and provides a rugged ramble before the delicate landing of the final tracks.
Several songs here are first recordings that would later appear on other Neil Young projects. Some, like “Love Is a Rose” and “Little Wing”, hew rather close to their later renditions; the joy here comes from hearing them in their new surroundings. For instance, the resignation felt in the weary “Star of Bethlehem” (again with Emmylou Harris backing) lands more emotionally than it ever could sandwiched in the middle of American Stars ‘N Bars. The title track sounds looser and more off the cuff than its later version, Young eschewing the chorus harmonies all together the first time around. Far more interesting is to hear Young and Crazy Horse’s muscular “White Line” from Ragged Glory stripped of its flesh and finding its own resonance as a solo acoustic number.
The Bad: Sadly, some of the most captivating moments here end before the listener has time to let them sink in. Both “Mexico” and “Kansas”, previously unreleased, begin with incredibly lovely introductions — Young plunking longingly on piano in the first and strumming alone plaintively on the other — and imagery that suggest a story worth hearing (e.g., “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream/ And it’s so good to have you sleeping by my side”) only to have the songs fade before their time. It’s all the more disappointing when you listen to other extremely short tracks, like “White Line” and “Little Wing”, which make lasting impressions during their brief appearances. Brevity isn’t the culprit here; inchoate songs are. As for Young’s tall tale in “Florida”, you might need a puff of your own homegrown to make sense of this bizarre inclusion.
The Verdict: Homegrown isn’t a game-changing album in the grand scheme of Young’s career, but it offers enough of a whiff to understand that this is Young at the height of his powers using his art to find reasons to endure. While a handful of tracks (around the belly) don’t live up to their legend, hearing Homegrown after all these years rates as a fine gift for Young to leave to his legions of fans … and, hell, humanity.
Essential Tracks: “Separate Ways”, “Try”, and “Vacancy”