It’s hard to think of an artist who’s benefited more from the archivist impulse of the CD (and post-CD) era than Neil Young. Famous for shelving songs, scrapping entire albums and abruptly changing musical course, Young is one of the few major artists whose archival/outtake releases (of which there have been many in recent years) tend to be as appealing and revealing as his official albums. That’s definitely the case with Hitchhiker, the latest in an ongoing series of Young rarities discs.
Recorded in a single session in 1976 with longtime producer David Briggs, the 10-song solo acoustic Hitchhiker features several songs that would emerge, sometimes in radically different versions, as major items in Young’s body of work in subsequent years. It hails from the tail end of his bleakly brilliant “ditch” period, during which he reacted against the mainstream success of his Harvest LP by making some of his darkest, most reflective and most rewarding music — much of which, like Hitchhiker, he chose not to share with the public at the time. Among other things, Hitchhiker underlines how Young, at a time when he was generating a massive amount of inspired music, wasn’t always his own best editor, often sitting on first-rate work for reasons known only to himself.
Most of Hitchhiker‘s songs will be familiar to Young fans via his repurposing of them for subsequent albums. Although Young has derided his Hitchhiker performances as “stony,” this material and its execution constitute a loose, vibey and emotionally cohesive mood piece that brilliantly encapsulates a particularly inspired and prolific moment in the life of the artist.
In keeping with Hitchhiker‘s bicentennial vintage, such tunes as “Pocahontas,” “Powderfinger,” “Captain Kennedy” and “Ride My Llama” — all of which eventually emerged on the dusky Americana-themed Rust Never Sleeps and its loose sequel, Hawks and Doves — hauntingly embody Young’s rueful take on frontier brutality. This stark early version of “Powderfinger,” minus the familiar guitar riff that drove subsequent incarnations of the song, captures its doomed young narrator’s confusion and powerlessness in a manner that the song’s electric incarnations never matched.
Another highlight is a haunting embryonic incarnation of the idealistic country-rock tune “Human Highway,” which would eventually become a centerpiece of Young’s 1978 folk-pop throwback Comes a Time. The backhanded Richard Nixon tribute “Campaigner,” which Young had consigned to his 1977 Decade anthology, appears here with an additional verse that makes it all the more poignant. Young didn’t get around to reviving the title track until 2010, when he included it in an almost unrecognizably souped-up version on his album Le Noise — although he’d previously recycled the closing section as the chorus of “Like an Inca,” on 1982’s Trans. Here, “Hitchhiker” is a drug-fueled confessional, with a compelling urgency that echoes the fatalistic buzz of the ditch-era classics Tonight’s the Night and On the Beach.
The least familiar material here — i.e. the previously unreleased tunes “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength” — is similarly engaging. The former is a brief but haunting trifle narrated by a rambling drifter who may or may not be trying to get home to the titular location. The much-bootlegged latter tune is a bittersweet beauty whose confessional heartbreak makes it stirring and spooky, and thus an appropriate match for the rest of Hitchhiker. — SCOTT SCHINDER