This discography analysis is written by contributor JT of Perth, Australia. Follow him at @thesonofnoone on Twitter.
Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1: 1963-1972 (2009) Spotify
OK, so here we are. Not the end of all things. Rather, it's the beginning. But it's an ending in a way as it's going back to the beginning. And if you don't follow then I'm sure you eventually will. I've been on a Neil-less trip for a while. Even fanatics like me need to step back every now and then and just chill for bit… I need to listen to other stuff even though I know it isn't as good as the stuff I'm not listening to.
The Archives project has always held a special interest to me. The size and sheer balls of the project have amazed me since I first heard about it. The thought of someone offering up their own personal musical history isn't a new idea. People have been putting out Greatest Hits-type compilations for a while now, and consumers have been buying them up for as long as they've been getting a release. But this, through my "Neil Young is a motherfuckin' God" coloured glasses, is different. This isn't as much a man presenting his songs, it's a man showing the world (through his music) who he actually is and what he did to get where he was going.
The songs on the first Archives volume run the full gamut from boring to brilliant. There's perfection here and there's songs that are bad, plain bad. But you need both sides of the story. What use is someone telling us about their life when all they do is tell you all the good things that happened to them?
How to approach this review is the problem which has held up my review… which, when you think about it is kind of apt. This project was delayed and delayed ad nauseum because Neil (apparently) was searching for the perfect sound*. Well, I'm trying to figure out the best way to present it myself.
It'll be a beast, so let's get started, shall we?
*I don't actually buy it. Sure, the guy's uppity about sound quality, and that's admirable. But the real reason this took decades to release? Neil didn't want to let go. Here he was saying goodbye to his past… and even though he was never an artist to rest on his laurels, he has to know that the work he did in his 20s and 30s was some of the best work he's ever done. I reckon it's some of the best work anyone's ever done, but I doubt Neil's that… I don't know. I just don't reckon he gives enough of a shit to be so mindful of his own legacy. Or maybe he is (going by how much he charges for concert tickets)… I never claimed to understood the man.
1. 'Aurora' - Like so much on this opening disk, 'Aurora' really isn't anything groundbreaking. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's completely inessential. But that's not the point of The Archives. The inessential sit side-by-side with the monumental as a document to how much one man can grow musically. Listening to 'Aurora', it's easily apparent that The Squires weren't destined for greatness. It's not that everything in this song is meritless... quite the contrary. Neil's guitar has a melodicism that shows that even at a young age he's got a handle on how to handle his axe. But still... you can't really expect anyone to sit down and listen over and over to a song which really could be played by any number of early-to-mid 60s bands to just as much (or as little) effect. But since Neil was young (pun most definitely not intended), it's easy to give him a pass for not reaching the stars on his first attempt. 4.5
2. 'The Sultan' - I actually like this better than 'Aurora'. Kind of the kind of music that Neil would've written if he was asked to score a Spaghetti Western. This would be the song playing in the chase across the dusty red plains, as the hero was chasing after the carriage which has got his girl, or his kid, in there. Or that's how I imagine it, at least. Still the same score as 'Aurora', but it's a little better. 4.5
3. 'I Wonder' - Shit it's fun listening to this track. The first vocals of our man, and boy doesn't he want everyone to not know how he actually sounds. He's lowered his voice down and buried it beneath the heavy backing vocals - or is that a twin lead vocal? Anyway... I can't ever dislike this song, especially since I love 'Don't Cry No Tears' so much. And if you don't know the link between the two, you should... but I'll tell you anyway. 'I Wonder' has some of the same lyrics, and the same melody as 'Don't Cry No Tears'. It doesn't have even 1/100th of the awesome Crazy Horse crunch, but since that band didn't exist, I'm willing to forgive Neil. 5.5
4. 'Mustang' - Another instrumental, and not as good (to these ears) as the first two. 3.5
5. 'I'll Love You Forever' - This is more like it. Give this a bit of polish (and conversely, a bit more edge) and this would've sat nicely along Neil's Buffalo Springfield-era tunes (well, the lesser ones here) or even on his debut album. It's fucking better than'String Quartet From Whiskey Boot Hill', that's for sure. So what do we have here? Neil's apprehensive, early-career vocals... strong, yet awkward melody... surf guitar. Yep, it's early Neil alright. But you know what? It's a pretty dang good song. 5.5
6. '(I'm a Man And) I Can't Cry' - Anyone else out there think that this song could have been resurrected in 1983 and turned into one of the better songs on Everybody's Rockin'. It's got the sad-sack lament lyrics which make any great pop song exactly that, but it rollicks along as if Neil's not that upset at losing his girl. You can't really sit down, listen to each of these songs intently and say (at this stage) that Neil was drastically improving from song to song... but it's cool to listen to. I think we're all damn lucky that an artist feels as though his embryonic recordings are worthy of such presentation. 5.0
7. 'Hello Lonely Woman' - Yeah, it's good and all... but it's nothing that you could call original, or say that there's no one else in the world who could've sung the song. Neil resurrected this tune for his 1988 tour with the Bluenotes... but I think I prefer this version. It's like a stationary road song... if that makes sense. Like two mates parked by the side of the road with a campfire and nothing better to do than to come up with the first song which comes into their heads. Sometimes this spontaneous creation is lightning in a bottle. 'Hello Lonely Woman' is definitely not up to that level, but it gets a pass mark considering the age and experience of the guy who's singing it. 5.0
8. 'Casting Me Away From You' - Yeah... write this song two years later and it's on a Buffalo Springfield album with Richie Furay singing lead. I actually dig this song a bit. The whole duelling acoustics thing that Neil and Comrie Smith have got going is infectuous. Can't really start a thesis about the meaning of the song, but it's still... help me out here. I think what I'm trying to say is that it doesn't suck. And sometimes that's more than enough. 5.0
9. 'There Goes My Babe' - Before I go into this song. Does anyone else, when they go to type Buffalo Springfield, end up starting to type Buffalo Springsteen before they realise the errors of their ways? No? Maybe it's just me then. Anyway, a demo of this was on the Buffalo Springfield Box Set and I wrote this; "Simply put though, this isn't really up to the standard of songs he would write only a few years later. But damn, this is promising." Yep, couldn't agree with me more... not much has changed. I still don't think it's great, but it's not horrible. 5.0
10. 'Sugar Mountain (Demo)' - According to the website of the same name - 'Sugar Mountain' has been played live by Neil 416 times. And these are just the times we know about. In contrast, a song so awesome as 'I've Loved Her So Long' has been played 4 times. If using simple maths, it would seem that Neil likes 'Sugar Mountain' 104 times more than he does 'I've Loved Her So Long'. 'Soldier' (brilliant song that it is) has been played live only 3 times. So, 'Sugar Mountain' would seem to be 138.667 times better than 'Soldier' in Neil's eyes. Or maybe that it's 138.667 times easier to play. I'm sure you're sure where I'm going (or not going) with this. So what about this demo version? I honestly can't tell the difference to this and a version 4 minutes longer. I guess it's just so much a part of the man that he has to sing it. 5.5
11. 'Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing (Demo)' - This has always been an indifferent song to me. I love the nostalgia that the first Neil Young song on a Buffalo Springfield album was this song (even though it was sung by Richie Furay), but honestly... nothing in it makes me that excitable. I don't turn it off, mind you, I just don't really shake with anticipation every time it nearly comes on (actually I don't really do that with any song, but hopefully you get my point). This demo is Neil firmly square in the 'not trying to be the next Dylan, but still sounding like you listen to him religiously' phase. What can I say at this stage except I think the song is inoffensive and somewhat interesting. I'm also highly surprised that it was chosen to be a song which was deemed to be better than a song Neil just demoed and then never used or sang ever again. 5.0
12. 'Runaround Babe' - Again with the 'sounding like Dylan even though he's not necessarily trying to'. All these demos, probably from the exact same recording session, sound fantastic. Better than 40 year old demos really should. The fascinating part of this bunch of demos is that they were all just cranked out, and even though the songs themselves aren't remarkable (in any way), they show remarkable growth as a songwriter. As a singer, not so much (except to say Neil is at last not trying to drown his voice out with other singers). But we'll get there. 5.0
13. 'The Ballad of Peggy Grover' - Same melody as 'I Wonder'. Neil's never been afraid to recycle melodies or songs. I just find it interesting to see that there's two songs from the same timeframe which share the same melody, yet it took ten years for him to actually utilise it in a released song. I'm glad he did though, because the song he chose ('Don't Cry No Tears') is fucking brilliant. This song, not so much... but that's just nitpicking.5.5
14. 'The Rent is Always Due' - Sounds like it could sit along side the Dylan pisstake than John C. Reilly did in Walk Hard. I have to admit (and you've probably already realised this), but I'm not completely enamoured with these songs. I don't mind... you can't score 50 points every game, or hit a home run with every at-bat (bit of ol' U.S Sports analogies there for you like-minded folks). But at least there's signs that the guy is getting better. 5.5
15. 'Extra, Extra' - I've actually listened to this song for the past 10 minutes. Each time it finishes I forget that I even started listening to it, so I keep going back to the start to listen to it... but all to no avail. It's actually a second-cousin (maybe) to 'Sugar Mountain'. I hear the same melody in parts that he sings, and we all know my feelings on that song. No? Just look up a few. But anyway. This song is pure vanilla. I don't hate vanilla, but I'd prefer something a bit better. And then it's over and I've forgotten most of the song. Should I go listen to it again, or should I just realise that the song is a bit boring and move on? 3.5
DISC RATING: 5.5
MINI VERDICT: Yeah, so this disc was never going to get a 10.0. As a collection of a songs, it's lacking... but as a part of a whole package which completely blows my mind, it more than serves its purpose. I can't think of another artist who's laid his/her early years as bare as this without it seeming like an exercise in blatant cash grabbing. Onward and upward, I say... and never fear, the best is yet to come.
1. 'Flying on the Ground is Wrong (Demo)' - Same as on the BS Box Set (as is pretty much all of this disc). I can't remember what I said about this demo, but it was probably something along the lines of "I like this better than the version on the first Buffalo Springfield Album". Not much has changed since I thought and wrote that originally. I'd listen to this anyday. Great demo. 7.5
2. 'Burned' - Not sure why this was never a Crazy Horse staple. They could've taken this, added a bit of crunch, and people would have been shaking their asses for years. But, unbeknownst to all but Neil, it's been shelved for eternity. Oh well, damn fun song here. 7.5
3. 'Out of My Mind' - Called it a masterpiece originally and I wasn't wrong. Honestly - my opinions of these songs hasn't changed at all. I've listened to them so much over quite a few years that any opinion I had of them was formed pretty early on. Getting my thoughts down on page has changed that, it's just an avenue for me to clear a few thoughts out of my head so I can get to other ones. Kinda like that bowl of festy water that the old guy with the beard who looks like that other old guy with the beard from that other movie uses in those movies about that kid with the scar on his head. 10.0
4. 'Down Down Down' - So what do you reckon... Neil records the demo for this, goes home and smokes one, puts Abbey Road on (even though it hasn't been recorded yet) and decides that "hey! how about I take the melody of this, little bits of something else, 'Take Me Out to the Ballgame', Dewey Martin screaming, crowd noises and presto!" he gets himself a whole little mini amalgamation of something that although good, isn't equal to the sum of its parts? No? OK, worth a shot. 6.5
5. 'Kahuna Sunset' - What I said before: "Well, it doesn't lie does it. 'Kahuna Sunset' sounds exactly like a song called 'Kahuna Sunset' should sound like. Not sure I will ever listen to this on repeat, but it's not boring at least." This song is living proof that Neil once dreamed of creating theme tunes to Sherwood Schwartz television shows. 5.0
6. 'Mr Soul' - Did you know that I must've listened to the Unplugged and Year of the Horse versions of this song about 100 times before I actually heard the Buffalo Springfield version? Or that it wasn't until I heard a live version from 1986 when the whole "this is Neil's version of 'Satisfaction'" revelation kicked in. Better late than never I suppose. One thing that always bugged me about this song though - and that's Neil's enunciation. Have a listen to the t's on "but don't change, and I let her". Yeah, Neil - hammer those t's because we sure as hell weren't sure what you were saying otherwise. Gave it a 6.5 before, probably a bit harsh - upping this a bit.7.5
7. 'Sell Out' - OK - here we go! Something I haven't written about before! So, what have we here. Apart from the fact that you could take this song, give to Susannah Hoffs and Matthew Sweet and it would be something they'll perform for the fourth Austin Powers film, it's not bad at all. Short (1:44), but packs enough into that time to simultaneously not be too short and not overstay its welcome. The whole "fire chief, car thief, mislead Skinhead" opening line sounds like it belongs far away from Neil, but I'll pay it. It's a previously unreleased song, after all. Some nice little melodies floating through the song as well. I like melody. 7.0
8. 'Down to the Wire' - I'm a contradiction sometimes. In my Decade review I said this was better than the Stills-sung version on the BS Box Set, but when I reviewed that I said the Stills version was better. What the fuck do I know... I'm just a fan of the song (either version). Turn it up loud, bop around the room a bit and I bet you'll be playing it a few times over, guaranteed. 9.0
9. 'Expecting to Fly' - Yeah, I hate this song. Well, not really (not at all actually). It's still pretty much the most 'beautiful' thing Neil's ever done. And sometimes 'beautiful' is OK. With 'Expecting to Fly' it definitely is. This song sounds like a dream, and not one of the good dreams (not a nightmare either), but one of the ones where you wake up and you can't remember what the fuck happened, you know you've just got this feeling in your bones but you aren't sure what it's there for and when you talk to someone, you say something like "I had this bizarre dream last night" and they say "what was it about?" and you say "I haven't got a clue". This song is exactly like that. 10.0
10. 'Slowly Burning' - It always feels like a waste when I spend time commenting on instrumentals. Not sure why, but it does. This here's got some great guitar through it, and it's obviously from a time when Neil still thought he (with the help of Jack Nitzsche) could be something like a new Brian Wilson. Except he's not Brian Wilson... one of him was enough (and when he was fat, he was big enough for two of his former self). Anyway, 'Slowly Burning' gets the Siskel & Ebert 'Two Thumbs Up!' sign from me. 7.0
11. 'One More Sign' - Still love this little demo. Can understand why it wasn't on a Buffalo Springfield album - Neil probably had one shot at the whole over-the-top, melodramatic thing, and he went (wisely) with 'Expecting to Fly'. That song's better than this one, but this song's better than a lot of others and it's remarkable to think it wasn't released until 2001. 9.0
12. 'Broken Arrow' - Call it an interestingly successful mis-step. A mess, for sure... but a listenable one. It's a song that I like, but one I don't really ever sit all the way through any more. There's too many parts to it, too many parts which don't really blend together. For instance, if Robert Altman's Nashville wasn't all set in Nashville, but everywhere else and none of the characters actually had anything in common with each other... the film would be good, but it wouldn't be as good as it actually was. Make sense? Basically, this song's like an Altman film where the characters are part of the same film but have nothing to do with each other. 7.5
13. 'I Am a Child' - Yeah - still not a huge fan of this. No real melodic highs to speak of. No spark. Nothing. But he's done worse. 5.0
DISC RATING: 8.0
MINI VERDICT: The Buffalo Springfield era is always a bit fascinating. It's not overly brilliant, that's for sure... even though there's plenty here to show that the guy doing the writing and the guy doing the singing was going to be the guy who'll eventually knock you left, right, up and down with the majority of his songs. Of course, 'Expecting to Fly' is here and that always means that I'm going to be more favourable to it than I normally would. But the gist of this disc is that he's getting better, and in a couple of instances, it's scary how much better he's got since the first disc.