As a custodian of his own catalog, Neil Young has alternated between meticulousness and sloppiness—a jagged progression not unlike the way he’s treated his own music. Beginning with his early-’60s stint as the singer-guitarist for the Canadian surf-rock band The Squires, Young has tumbled headlong from gig to gig, band to band, and recording session to recording session, often abandoning projects (and people) in fits of pure caprice. Deep in Young’s discography lay albums that were never released, albums that Young let fall out of print in the CD era, songs written years before Young recorded them, and songs Young recorded years before he deemed them fit for public consumption. Now nearing the end of his fifth decade as a recording artist, Young trails a legacy that’s as frustrating in its disorder as it is staggering in its quality.
And yet for all his “fuck it, roll tape” approach to making records, Young has been a persnickety bastard when it comes to reissues and compilations. In 1977, he effectively recontextualized his career to that point with Decade, a 3-LP hits-and-rarities collection that gave the Young-friendly rock critics of the era the evidence they needed to assert that there’d been a method to the artist’s madness all along. Following Decade, Young released two of the best-selling, best-reviewed albums of his career—Comes A Time and Rust Never Sleeps—and then squandered nearly all the critical and commercial capital he’d acquired by releasing a string of albums that explored electronica, rockabilly, trad-country, and R&B, with negligible success. By the end of the ’80s, Young was promising a new anthology called Decade II that would do for his post-Decade output what Decade had done for his late-’60s and early-’70s material. Properly excerpted and sequenced, Young’s music would make the case for itself.
But Decade II never arrived. Young became unexpectedly busy when his career caught a second wind, thanks in part to the excellent 1989 album Freedom, and thanks in part to a wave of popular alt-rock acts who cited Young as an influence and revived his popularity for a new generation. Also, Young seemed stymied by how to make the best use of the available new technologies. Never a fan of CDs, Young dithered over potential formats for his second anthology for so long that repeating the Decade concept became untenable. Finally, early in the ’00s, Young announced that he was working on a new set called Archives, and based on the initial rumors—many of them accompanied by a healthy dose of “we’ll believe it when we see it” skepticism—Archives was going to be loaded with alternate takes, unreleased songs, and live material. The rumors gained credence with the first wave of single-CD issues tagged with the Archives label: three live albums containing songs and video footage previously known only to the “gray market.” As for the actual Archives box set, that remained shrouded in mystery—and plagued with missed street dates—until earlier this year, when Young’s staff finally released images and full details of what the set was going to be, along with a firm release date of June 2. In some ways, the official Archives announcement proved as confounding as any of the project’s prior delays.
Here’s what Neil Young Archives: 1963-72 is not: It’s not exclusively a set of rarities and live tracks. As the title implies, Young’s gone back to square one, forgetting Decade ever existed, and is now endeavoring to create the ultimate Neil Young collection, encompassing outtakes alongside the well-known versions of his best-loved songs. The first volume of Archives opens with both sides of a rare Squires single, then continues with samples of the demos Young cut when he first moved to California, followed by songs drawn from his work with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills & Nash, and songs from his classic albums Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, After The Gold Rush, and Harvest.
In a typical bit of Young-ian perversity, the studio albums aren’t represented in full. Young leaves one or two tracks off each, while presenting other songs in multiple live and studio versions. (If you’re a fan of “Sugar Mountain,” you’ll be well served.) And though Archives weighs in at a hefty eight CDs (or 10 DVDs, or 11 BDs, depending on which format the buyer prefers), the individual discs rarely reach their full capacity, while some of the discs merely rehash the live albums that have come out over the past few years: Live At Canterbury House 1968, Crazy Horse At The Fillmore 1970, and Live At Massey Hall 1971. (The set also includes one previously unreleased live set: the chat-filled acoustic disc Live At The Riverboat 1969.)
Fans who already own those live records have the option of ordering Archives’ other discs separately from neilyoungarchives.warnerreprise.com, for a premium price. But what Young really wants fans to do is to pony up the $350 list price for the Blu-ray version of Archives, to experience the music they already own in a whole new way. (The DVD set lists for 250 bucks; the CD set for 100. All are available more cheaply from retailers or at Young’s Reprise site.) A fanatic for fidelity, Young initially announced that Archives would only be available on Blu-ray, before relenting and agreeing to put it out in other formats. Still, Young has made every effort to assure that the premium set has premium content, including hidden songs, photos, and an interactive timeline with stray bits of video footage. He’s also promised that the BD set’s owners will be able to download new content on a semi-regular basis.
Is the Blu-ray version of Archives worth the extra coin? Well, it is overpriced, but it’s also a heck of a lot of fun to play around with. There’s a puckish sense of design about these discs—a combination of the low-tech and the high-tech, combined with plenty of inducements to poke around. Pop in an Archives BD and select “play all,” and the music plays over film of reel-to-reels or record players. Select an individual song and the screen offers options to check out handwritten lyrics (or newspaper articles, or record contracts, or other memorabilia) while the song plays. Some songs contain audio extras, like radio interviews, record company promos, or rambling in-concert intros. Some contain video, like concert footage or clips from old TV appearances. And strewn throughout the BDs—most often on the “More” screen—are little Easter Eggs, like recent video of Young reacting to a 30-year-old pan of one of his first solo gigs, or early-’70s footage of him confronting a clerk at a record store stocking CSNY bootlegs.
The scattered audio/video/print documentation creates a context for the music that mere liner notes can’t. A thorough CD booklet—which Archives also contains—might’ve included Young’s thoughts on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Young-skewering anthem “Sweet Home Alabama,” or his confession to semi-stealing the riff for “Mr. Soul” from The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” or might even have included the amusing note that accompanied the promotional “bag of dirt” that Reprise sent out to interested Young fans back in the early ’70s. But it’s more edifying to read the label’s self-aware, pseudo-honest ad copy for Young’s self-titled debut album (“It’s about as fun as Peer Gynt,” the ad confesses) while a sparkling version of “The Loner” from that record plays, or to examine the sleeve for the 45 of “Ohio” (which featured the lyrics on one side and an excerpt from the First Amendment on the other), while hearing Young’s anti-Nixon screed firsthand. Listening to Young’s stoned-but-articulate in-concert “raps”—or seeing his surly figure onstage alongside the decidedly softer-looking David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash—puts a frame around the entire early-’70s Neil Young experience.
The problem with the high-end version of Archives is that few people have Blu-ray players in their cars, or portable Blu-ray players to carry around while taking long walks, or even Blu-ray players in their laptops, all of which makes actually listening to Archives kind of a challenge for those who are away from their TVs. To alleviate that problem, all of the Archives sets—CD and DVD too—come with a card bearing a special code that enables the box-owners to download MP3s of the Archives’ musical content. But on the day Archives was released, cardholders discovered that the site they’d been directed to contained no information on how to actually execute the downloading procedure. The Warner/Reprise customer-service phone-line operators were stymied, while the e-mail line directed disgruntled customers back to the same website, which was periodically updated with “be patient, we’re working on it” messages. Just when fans were wondering if they’d have to wait as long for the MP3-hating Young to give them what they paid for as they waited for Decade II, the download page finally became available—a week after the box set’s street date.
Perhaps the MP3 delay was intentional, to force people who bought the Blu-ray set to listen to Archives properly. If so, good show. The sound of the BDs is as sterling as Young has professed, achieving depth and intimacy without ever seeming overbearing in its technological sizzle. (Whether that depth and intimacy is necessary for a song like “Down By The River,” which sounds like it was made for transistor radios, is another matter entirely.) And though it’s easy to nitpick over what’s missing from Archives (nothing from Young’s post-Squires band The Mynah Birds, which featured Rick James on lead vocals?) versus what’s included (was “Till The Morning Comes” from After The Gold Rush really more vital than “Out On The Weekend” from Harvest?), the set’s outtakes and rarities are largely exceptional.
Many of the songs from Neil Young are presented with alternate takes or mixes, effectively toning down the over-orchestration that’s always been a distraction on that record. Also included from the Neil Young sessions: early versions of “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Birds” that are much brighter and even prettier than their better-known versions. From Young’s Buffalo Springfield days, the Dylan-esque snark-fest “Sell Out” rips into rock star wannabes circa 1967, while the CSNY curio “Sea Of Madness” (previously available only on the Woodstock soundtrack) offers a funky, rollicking version of the supergroup that stands in stark contrast to their general mellowness. And the Harvest sessions yield a wealth of long-coveted goodies, including studio versions of “Bad Fog Of Loneliness” and “Journey Through The Past,” and a less bombastic mix of “A Man Needs A Maid.”
Even the songs on Archives with little repeat value are of historical interest, even if it’s only to show Young working through his requisite electric blues phase on “Hello Lonely Woman,” or coming up with the melody for “I Am A Child” in the context of the dire Greenwich Village folk exercise “The Rent Is Always Due.” Oddly enough, some of the most likable and revelatory music on Archives comes from Young’s surf-rock era, both with The Squires and later on the unreleased Buffalo Springfield instrumental “Kahuna Sunset.” So much of what Young’s been about throughout his career—even at his grungiest—is the mental and physical effect induced by waves of sound, which makes his surf-music fandom more than just the byproduct of a Canadian boy pining for the mythological America of cars, cowboys and beach bums. There’s a tactile quality to surf music that’s been an obvious influence on Young’s work, such that it’s hard to hear songs like “Winterlong,” “Burned” or “Cinnamon Girl” and not hear traces of Jan & Dean.
Archives also includes Young’s oddball midnight movie experiment Journey Through The Past, a sort of bargain-basement mash-up of the Maysles brothers and Alejandro Jodorowsky that combines interminable fly-on-the-wall footage of Young and his cronies with a mystical allegory about pervasive redneck-ism and the corruption of hippie youth. Again, it’s more of an artifact than a piece of entertainment in and of itself, though it’s amusing to see an impossibly high Young go from giggle fits to a raging performance of “Southern Man” with Crosby, Stills & Nash. (It’s also amusing to spot little transient symbols of the culture war, like one bumper sticker that features a peace sign next to the words “The Footprint Of The American Chicken.” Undoubtedly Young’s generation figured those kinds of generational provocations would fade, just as they were certain that RJ Reynolds was going to start manufacturing packs of marijuana cigarettes by the end of the ’70s.)
If Archives is ultimately less of a career-redefiner than Decade, that’s only because Young’s become such an entrenched part of rock history that his career has been exhaustively picked-over. Aside from the heretofore under-explored surf influence, there are really only a few new connections made or questions raised with Archives. (And those tend to be minor, along the lines of, “Hey, ever noticed how much ‘Running Dry’ off Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere sounds like The Velvet Underground?”) Each Archives disc features a few screens containing pieces of Young’s biography, but it would’ve been nice to hear more from Young himself, about his life, his career, and each song he chose to include in this set. But Young, for all his eagerness to document and share every creative impulse he’s ever had, has always been notoriously reticent about his personal life. His music says everything he wants to say… provided he can get it in the right order.