Few artists can boast as formidable and consistent a back catalogue as Neil Young. For over half a century now, he’s rarely left long gaps between his records, and bar a well-documented creative dip during the 1980s, the quality of his output has remained remarkably high even in his later years, when many contemporaries have long since faded away into caricature or irrelevance.
Young’s clearly prodigious work rate has inevitably led to a deep vault of unreleased material, more and more of which has been gradually made available in recent years. As is often the case, some of these projects undeniably fall under the ‘for die hard fans only’ category, but with Homegrown, released this month 45 years after it was originally scheduled, there is a genuine sense of excitement that a key gap in Young’s musical legacy is about to be filled.
Recorded between June 1974 and January 1975, Homegrown was intended to come out later in 1975 before Young cancelled the release, replacing it at the last minute with the raw, ragged now-classic Tonight’s The Night. The reasons for Homegrown’s sudden disappearance are complex and linked to Young’s own troubled life during this period. Struggling to come to terms with the overwhelming success of 1972’s Harvest album – still probably his most universally popular record – Young was also dealing with the unravelling of his marriage to the actress Carrie Snodgress. This turmoil was reflected in the unusually personal, introspective lyrics on Homegrown, often delivered solo with just acoustic guitar and harmonica. In the end, Young decided the mood of the record simply didn’t feel right for him to share with the world at that time, so Homegrown was consigned to the list of mythical might-have-been albums alongside other such legends like The Beach Boys’ Smile and Bob Dylan’s The Great White Wonder.
So, now Homegrown is finally out in the open for us all to hear, is it any good? Young describes the album as ‘the unheard bridge between Harvest and Comes A Time’ – a broadly accurate representation, in the sense that almost all his records can loosely be split into two broad styles – the easy on the ear, country-rock singer-songwriter of the two aforementioned releases, and the more freeform, loud and sprawling Crazy Horse collaborations like Zuma or Ragged Glory. Homegrown is certainly in the former camp, although there are some electric instruments in the mix, and the dark, troubled vibe sometimes recalls the quieter moments of On The Beach (recorded just a year earlier) rather than the more polished material on Harvest or After The Goldrush. The guest list includes revered regular collaborators Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Ben Keith and Emmylou Harris.
Of the 12 songs here, seven are previously unreleased – Separate Ways, Try, Mexico, Kansas, We Don’t Smoke It No More, Vacancy and Florida. Also included are the first recordings of Love Is A Rose, Homegrown, White Line, Little Wing and Star Of Bethlehem – different versions of which would all later appear on other Neil Young albums.
Overall, it’s hard to see Homegrown ultimately being evaluated as belonging in the pantheon of Young’s greatest work. There are undoubtedly some excellent songs – in particular, the bittersweet, regretful Love Is A Rose, the mournfully pretty White Line and the gently lilting closer Star Of Bethlehem, with the cooing backing harmonies and wistful tone bringing to mind Silver And Gold, recorded a full 25 years later. But the fact these standout cuts are all ones that Young chose to re-record in the future is perhaps telling: the unreleased tracks simply aren’t as good and one or two, notably the grating spoken word monologue Florida, offer precious little at all. The lack of ripe new fruit is probably what makes Homegrown a slight disappointment, but judged by most standards, it’s still a very solid collection that vividly reflects a turbulent chapter in Neil Young’s long and eventful career.