Review

Homegrown by Neil Young, review: a heartbreaking memory of the good old days

4/5

A long-abandoned album shows the American rocker at his mid-1970s finest, but swamped by personal troubles and raw emotion

Homegrown is an album rescued from the early years of Young's solo career
Homegrown is an album rescued from the early years of Young's solo career Credit: Getty

Only the most dedicated Neil Young fan could keep up with his prolific output, which runs to over 40 studio albums, eight live albums, four soundtracks and an ongoing archive series gathering together obscure and unreleased recordings. And that’s not counting his work with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby Stills Nash and Young.

So it might be understandable if anticipation for yet another new release was muted among all but the most hardcore of devotees. But what if I were to tell you that it was a lost album of acoustic heartbreak from the mid-1970s, when Young was still one of the shining stars of rock?

Homegrown was recorded between December 1974 and January 1975. Young had just split up with Carrie Snodgress, an Oscar-nominated actress and mother of his first child, Zeke. In a musically sparse setting and state of raw emotion, he lamented their tumultuous relationship, pondered its bitter path and fretted about his future. A track list was prepared and cover artwork completed for release in June 1975, but at the last-minute Young changed his mind.

“It was a little too personal, it scared me,” he admitted to Rolling Stone a few years later. “I’ve never released any of those [songs]. And I probably never will. I think I’d be too embarrassed to put them out.”

Instead, he swapped it for an entirely different set of songs, previously recorded and put aside in 1973. Tonight’s The Night offered a more ragged and rocky side of Young, although its mood of darkness and desolation at the drug deaths of two close friends was hardly a bundle of good cheer.

Well, they say time heals. Now, 45 years later, Young has finally come to terms with his long-abandoned album, describing it as the missing link between laidback classics Harvest (1972) and Comes A Time (1978). “It’s the sad side of a love affair,” Young wrote on his website. “The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault, on the shelf, in the back of my mind … but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts.”

The album opens with a strange warp sound, as if we were entering another dimension, catching the music and emotion midstream. It was actually the engineer hastily turning the tape recorder on as Young and his band started playing without warning. It creates the effect of plunging us straight into Young’s misery. “I won’t apologise” are the first words we hear him sing on Separate Ways, although in a tone of loss and regret that suggests that is exactly what he is trying to do. Levon Helm of The Band plays light touch drums, while Ben Keith’s pedal steel echoes Young’s strung out emotion as he softly sings “my eyes are open and my heart is pouring through”. And that, indeed, is a fair summation of the whole album.

Although it evokes the same light country-rock setting as Harvest (much of which was written in the first glow of his relationship with Snodgress), Homegrown doesn’t really have the same assuredness and well-rounded songcraft. These songs are slips of things, tone-poems and explorations of mood. Mexico stops almost before it has begun, with Young at the piano, sadly pondering his escape from his family to a beach faraway: “Daddy is a travelling man.”

Emmylou Harris warms up Young’s despair with close harmony on the ballad’s Try and Star of Bethlehem, while The Band’s Robbie Robertson adds intricate weaves of acoustic guitar lead to Young’s plaintive strumming and aching harmonica on White Lines, but the mood remains bereft. “I was adrift on a river of pride / It seemed like such a long easy ride / You were my raft but I let you slide.”

The sentiment throughout is resigned and defeated. “Love is a rose but you better not pick it,” Young advises on Love Is A Rose, one of the album’s more well formed songs, rescued from Young’s archives to be released as a single by Linda Rondstadt in 1977.

Five of the 12 songs have been previously released in various versions over the years. Collected together with seven previously unheard songs, the effect is to compound the sadness at their core. There a couple of pleasantly throwaway druggy jams to lighten the mood, including the title song and the amusing We Don’t Smoke It.

But the heart of Homegrown is an evocation of profound loss. It comes through particularly vividly on its strangest tracks, the rocky Vacancy (“I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there / You poison me with that long, vacant stare”) and deeply discombobulating spoken word piece Florida. To the sound of ambient distortions, Young recounts a disturbing tale of gliders, babies and death, before slipping into the acoustic reverie of Kansas on which he wakes from a bad dream with a strange girl and imagines a different future for himself.

In a way, the release of Homegrown after all these years does the opposite, imagining a different past for Young, holding to his lonesome troubadour status at a time when he was actually embarking on a much rougher and rockier path. I have little doubt it would have been acclaimed in 1975, but it rings just as sweet and true in 2020. Heartbreak never gets old.

Homegrown is out on Reprise now