Neil Young is perhaps the most avid and thorough self-documentarian in music history, who in this century has not only dropped new or archival albums at a rate of two per year, he’s even announced plans to release virtually everything he’s ever recorded online.
Yet he’s just as much of a perfectionist, sitting on recordings for decades before deciding, for whatever reasons, that the time is right to release them. What is most remarkable about many of these recordings is how great they are — he launched his “Neil Young Archive” series with a mind-blowing 1970 set with Crazy Horse recorded at New York’s Fillmore East — and “Hitchhiker,” recorded solo in a single night in August 1976 at Malibu’s long-shuttered Indigo Studio, accompanied only by producer David Briggs and friend/actor Dean Stockwell — just might be the best yet.
Out on Sept. 8 but currently playing on NPR’s First Listen, the album finds Young playing 10 new songs, eight of which would be release in different versions over the ensuing years. Yet here they’re as pure and direct as possible, new songs rendered entirely by their author, with no studio or musical embellishment beyond the guitar or piano with which Young accompanies himself.
Young recalled the session, posting a wobbly video on Facebook early Friday of him reading a long remembrance at the studio of Colorado public radio station KOTO.
“The idea I had at the time was to present these new songs in their purest and most simple form, just as they had been written,” Young says, citing the influence the music of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and others had on him. “These influences remain with me today.”
“I was excited to put these tunes down, really feeling good about the session,” he continues. “I smoked a little weed with Dean and we settled into the small room where I would play acoustic and sing.” He talks through the setlist, which is presented on the album in the order the songs were recorded, noting that three of them had been attempted for his then-latest album with Crazy Horse, the 1975 classic “Zuma.”
After the title track, he notes. “You may be able to hear the drugs kicking in here.”
He concludes by saying: “I was advised to record the songs with a band, but the ‘Hitchhiker’ versions are the true originals, recorded earlier than any versions you may have ever heard, and I always knew the original album would find its place and surface. That time is now. A long time, a long wait, but worth it — this music is the essence of those times, pure and undisturbed, just as it was 40 years back.
Characteristically, Young finishes on a cryptic note.
“Some have noted after hearing this that this recording may be a high-water mark for me heard to match. Yet here we are, 40 years later, and the visitor will arrive soon with his own ideas.”
Whether that’s a hint at his next project or simply a red herring remains to be seen.