Was the original follow-up to On The Beach worth the 45 year wait for Neil Young fans?
Artist: Neil Young
Label: Reprise Records
★★★ (3/5 stars)
After the success of Harvest and “Heart of Gold” in ‘72 and his hook-up with CSN just before that, the ever-perverse and restless Neil Young ran away from fame and drove himself into his infamous, powerful ‘Ditch Trilogy’ of albums: 1973’s Time Fades Away, 1974’s craggily On the Beach and his grim masterpiece. 1975’s Tonight’s The Night.
In the middle of that chaos, he recorded another album between ’74 ad ‘75 but decided to keep that from view. Homegrown would have its bits and pieces sprinkled on his albums (1977’s American Stars ‘n Bars, 1980’s Hawks & Doves, 1990’s Ragged Glory). At the time though, Young actually saw Homegrown, which chronicled his break-up with actress Carrie Snodgrass, as too personal to release and instead went with the O.D. psycho-drama of TTN after recording it in ‘73, though that too seemed like an intensely personal record.
Homegrown does and doesn’t fit in with the other albums, which would have confused everyone and would have been just fine with Young. It has a downbeat, forlorn sadness that reflects his emotional state and veers from any MOR blandishments about break-ups. It was yet another non-commercial follow-up to Harvest that would have emotionally if not musically, fit into the trilogy. “I won’t apologize” is album’s first line and that’s classic Neil.
Here he’s aided by his Stray Gators buddies, (bassist Tim Drummond, guitarist Ben Keith), who backed him on his other albums then, with some assists from members of the Band, including Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson. For anyone who loves his folkie side, the album is a blessing, especially the brief (escapist?) geography set pieces “Kansas” and “Mexico.” “White Line” is much gentler than the Ragged Glory version, here with Robertson warmly plucking along with him. In fact, the only real rock on the album is “Vacancy,” a strident stomped in the vein of “When You Dance.” Otherwise, the only upbeat piece other than the telling opener (and lead single) “Separate Ways” is the Jimmy Reed type blues “We Don’t Smoke It No More,” which sounds like he did have a few puffs. The VIP here is singer Emmylou Harris, who adds some sweet harmonies to “Try” and “Star of Bethlehem.”
Most people will write off “Florida,” featuring wine glasses, piano strings and talk about airplanes, as a weird, useless experiment. They’re wrong though as it’s actually an important signpost. Typically, he’s thought of as an semi-acoustic rocker who can lay down a sweet tune and a mean guitar. “Florida” is also part of his essence though- it’s bizarre, puzzling, unexpected. All of those things are exactly what he thrives on. You don’t have to like or understand his left-field excursions, but that’ll never stop him from doing them and at some level, you gotta respect him for that. He’s gone much further off the deep end, with the ‘Ditch trilogy’ and the bizarre album-length, one-off 80’s outings (Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’, This Note’s For You). Even if it is the worst song on the record, “Florida” is an important destination for Young, though he didn’t stay there for long either.
In all, Homegrown is a strangely pleasant destination and another piece in the puzzle of his history/discography. Young sees it as the link between Harvest and Comes A Time, which it isn’t- the album doesn’t have the orchestral sweep of either and fits in more with the 2014 solo cover album A Letter Home, which also has its own recitation.
After scrapping Homegrown, Young constructed a new version of Crazy Horse for the relatively saner Zuma, released five months after Tonight’s the Night and signaled a new corner turned in Neil’s career. From there, he’d ride out the 70’s in steadier territory culminating with 1979’s folk-meets-noise-rock of Rust Never Sleeps before zigzagging genres in the 80’s, but that’s another story.
For now, since he’s digging through the vaults, maybe he could dust off ‘77’s Chrome Dreams too?