Is there anything more that needs to be said about Neil Young? The Canadian singer-songwriter has done so much to make such a lasting impression on the musical landscape with such a simple approach: do what you want. Neil started playing acoustic folk songs because he wanted to. Neil picked up a distorted Gibson Les Paul because he wanted to. Neil made country records, new wave records, 50s rock records, and even R&B records for the sole purpose of he wanted to. Love him or hate him, you could never call Neil Young fake. And because everything about him is front and center, there’s not much else to say about what already says about himself.
Even when he digs into his own archives, it’s more like looking into a photo album than uncovering a secret. Today’s case in point is Hitchhiker, an unreleased collection of recording session takes on August 11, 1976. Around this time, Neil was a year removed from peak records including Tonight’s the Night and the “Ditch Trilogy” starter Zuma. When Young walked into Indigo Studios in Malibu, he had 10 songs in hand that he wanted to play. With producer David Briggs, who produced other Young classics including Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, and On the Beach, Young recorded one of the most intimate performances of his career.
The 10 tracks here have appeared throughout Young’s career, with the likes of “Powderfinger,” “Pocahontas,” and “Ride My Llama” being made famous on Young’s 1979 live album Rust Never Sleeps. What matters is the performance of the songs. “Pocahontas” is played like a goofy love song as Young (aided by weed, booze, and cocaine during the sessions) wails along and strums in a relaxed mood. “Powderfinger” on the other hand, stripped of its smoking guitar solos, becomes much more mournful and somber as Young’s farmer story becomes more like a late night campfire story than rollicking folk legend. “Human Highway,” later heard on 1978’s Comes a Time, is also played slower with a sense of mournful sorrow. It’s a mood throughout the album of a man thinking of where he’s been and where he’s going.
Hitchhiker isn’t just a lost live retread or demos, as it contains two unreleased tracks. “Hawaii” is Neil in narrator mode, telling the story of coming up to a stranger while high. With his finger picking and occasional hits of the guitar wood, it comes across like Neil having a spiritual experience in the midst of his success. His voice is low, spooky even, as he sounds like he’s unsure if the experience he had was real. “Give Me Strength” is far more tangible, despite Young’s voice being given a slight echo in post production. From the harder guitar strums and Young’s opening line (“The lonely man I’ve made myself to be/is not as bad as some things I have seen”), this seems to be the centerpoint of the album. Something of a remnant of his sad ballads like “The Needle & the Damage Done,” Young thinks back to those he’s lost in the pursuit of happiness and he’s asking for a little help to keep going. To think Young was already in such in state in what was still an early part of his career is somewhat heartbreaking.
The setting sun seen on the album’s cover is a fitting image to have while listening to Hitchhiker, as Young seems to see the album as a snapshot of himself in the midst of his changing career. Not a statement of any kind, but a mere photograph of a man moving forward with his life. Hitchhiker was recorder a mere month before the also somber, mostly-acoustic Comes a Time and before his confusing output in the 1980s, so it’s easy to assume that this is one of the last shades of “classic” Neil Young. Hitchhiker is no grand revelation, but a reminder that even at his most bare he remains one of the most captivating performers of the 70s rock era.