THE COMING OF NEIL YOUNG to Portland is cause enough for celebration, but the news that on this solo acoustic tour he's debuting nearly an album's worth of new material is reason for fans to begin slobbering in anticipation. For decades, Young has always used live shows to spotlight new material; the songs on his biggest selling album, Harvest, were premiered during live shows that predated that album's release by over a year. But many of Young's best tunes have been completely neglected. Sometimes a song is abandoned altogether during the transition from live tour to studio album. Other times, the song's officially released version simply pales in comparison to a vastly superior live take—this has happened a lot to Young, particularly after the death of his best studio producer, David Briggs, in 1995. The following year's Broken Arrow, a cloaked but pained elegy for Briggs, is the last near-perfect album in Young's discography.
For instance, the luckiest in the series of gorgeous tunes that Young debuted in 1999, on his last solo acoustic tour of the States, ended on the oddly clunky but serviceable Silver & Gold, only slightly tarnished by Jim Keltner's ham-fisted drumming. But some of that period's best songs—"Out of Control," "Looking Forward"—turned up on a ghastly Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album, murdered by creaky-voiced harmonies and a shitty soft-rock vibe. One must either dig up the numerous bootlegs from the '99 tour or turn to the Silver & Gold concert DVD to find the unadorned, spectacular solo acoustic versions of the songs.
Meanwhile, 2003's Greendale album, film, and concert tour slowly evolved into Young's most ambitious self-contained project to date. It didn't start out that way: The album sounds like a bunch of barely practiced demo recordings. (At the time it was laid down, that was probably the case.) Then Young brought the songs to Europe for a solo acoustic tour that allowed him to crawl inside the crazy narratives he'd impulsively constructed. By the time he brought the full-stage show to US audiences, it had become a weirdly grand affair—a community-theater production on a stadium-rock scale. A few shows on the Greendale tour were among his best ever, which is almost impossible to believe while listening to the incredibly rough studio album.
As choppy as Greendale is, though, Young's 2002 album Are You Passionate? is virtually unsalvageable, except that it contains "Goin' Home"—the only track, significantly, to feature Crazy Horse—which, despite its being the highlight of the record, still is nowhere near as fervently momentous as versions that appeared in live shows. Another track from the period, "Gateway of Love" has turned up on live bootlegs as a dizzying epic, but it did not make Passionate?'s cut; instead we got the sloganeering of the godawful "Let's Roll," which made the tragedy of September 11 that much worse. At the time of its release, Are You Passionate? was the worst thing Young had ever put out—even his spotty '80s albums have substantially more to offer than meets the eye. (Trans has rightly acquired the reputation as an overlooked masterpiece, and even Landing on Water and Life beg for reappraisal.) However, Passionate? has since been overshadowed by an album so unbelievably dreadful it's hard to believe that its lame-brained boogie rock, its asinine sexist lyrics, and its amateurish playing are anything other than a joke. The album? Last year's Fork in the Road.
Let us not speak any further of Fork in the Road.
Instead, let us be thankful for 2006's Living with War, the best Neil Young album of the last decade, and one that married his wizened political fury with his garage-rock spontaneity, aided by a little overambitious zeal that he must have had leftover from Greendale. These are raw, fiery tunes with anguished melodies, and when Young layers a massive choir over their simple, hopeful chords, it works splendidly. Let us also be (somewhat) thankful for 2007's Chrome Dreams II, whose title is a sly nod to Young's habit of leaving great stuff unreleased, the original Chrome Dreams being a 1977 album that never saw the light of day, but would have been his masterpiece—bits of it turned up on subsequent albums for years. Chrome Dreams II gave us the long overdue release of "Ordinary People," a 1988 epic that is among Young's most stunning, lucid moments. (Live versions from 1988 blow this recorded version out of the water, though.) It also gave us "Boxcar" from the same era, which was originally performed by just Young and a forlorn sounding guitjo (guitar/banjo hybrid) and here is lazily re-recorded by old man Young and a bunch of his old man backing musicians.
One of the songs on Young's current tour isn't new, but has never been released: "Hitchhiker" was written somewhere in the '70s, but not publicly played until 1992 and almost never played since—until this tour. A fragment of it was reworked in 1982's "Like an Inca," but the reason Young left "Hitchhiker" on the shelf is shockingly clear: It's intensely and painfully personal, dealing with his budding fame, his history of drug use, and the dissolution of his relationship with Carrie Snodgress, the mother of his first child. Listening to a murky 1992 audience tape recording of the song is galvanizing: "Then came paranoia and it ran away with me/I couldn't sign my autograph or appear on TV/or see or be seen." It's an agonizingly great track, astonishing for having been left untouched for so long.
Along with the batch of new songs, "Hitchhiker" will hopefully turn up on Young's forthcoming record, possibly to be titled Twisted Road. Unfortunately, that album's fate may be already cursed—slated to produce was superstar über-producer Daniel Lanois, who may have been able to work some of the alchemy he brought to Dylan's latter-day career. But Lanois was critically injured in a motorcycle accident in June, and it's unknown whether the record has been finished. In the meantime, "Hitchhiker" is worth the cost of a (very expensive) ticket alone, and there will no doubt be other gems in the new tunes on Young's setlist.
Listen to 'em now. They may never sound this good again.