Neil Young Archives, Vol. II (1972-1976)

An absorbing journey through the past that reinvigorates the Ditch Years

Forward motion is the constant in Neil Young's career, a tendency he romanticized in "Thrasher," a 1979 kiss-of to Crosby, Stills & Nash: "I got bored and left them there/They were just dead weight to me." Neil's restlessness used to camouflage his contradictory desire to wander through his back pages, a trait that first surfaced on 1977's self-mythologizing Decade but blossomed with the appearance of Neil Young Archives, a multi-media project first unveiled on the weighty 2009 box Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972) but mutated into a series of satellite releases anchored by Young's own website, which is predictably and slightly confusingly called Neil Young Archives. 

Young spent years obsessing over Archives, originally conceiving it in the late 1980s as something of a Decade II, then gradually coming to the belief it should contain nothing less than his entire story. As always, audio quality was a bit of a bugaboo. Dismayed by the sound of 1990s digital audio, Neil held out for something better, eventually embracing Blu-ray for its high video and audio resolution. This was state of the art in 2009 but eleven years later, the format feels antiquated thanks to the rise of streaming technology. Looking back, the original 2009 box Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 feels tailored around the format of Blu-ray—one of its discs was devoted to the film of Journey Through The Past—but the long-awaited Neil Young Archives, Vol. II (1972-1976), which is now available to subscribers, isn't available as a Blu-Ray, or even a DVD, as Vol. I was. It's only available on CD, which will be accompanied by hi-res digital downloads. (I will always be amused that my advance download of the set arrived as a lowly 256-bit MP3, a number that's decidedly not Pono-friendly.)

The embrace of CD as the chosen physical format for Neil Young Archives, Vol. II is an acknowledgment that fulfills Neil's grandest archival visions, but that also has the ripple effect of making the Vol. II tighter and far more listenable than its predecessor. It also helps that Vol. II covers a period of time everybody knows is Young's creative peak: the mid-'70s, when he released four albums, scrapped another at the last minute, then wrote enough songs to propel him into the 1980s. Real heads came to call this period the "Ditch Years" in a nod to his claim in the Decade liner notes that "'Heart of Gold' put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch." 

The image of a ditch also suggests a vehicle going off the rails, a notion that's not inaccurate as far as Neil Young in the mid-'70s goes. Navigating a host of personal problems by indulging in intoxicants and creative whims in nearly equal measure, he sailed through moments of darkness and stoned reveries, winding up with a trilogy of messy masterpieces—Time Fades Away (1973), On the Beach (1974), Tonight's the Night (1975)—along with a stellar coda where the fog begins to lift (1975's Zuma). All four of these albums form the backbone of Neil Young Archives, Vol. II, which is structured like Vol. I in that it has individual discs devoted to an alternate telling of the album culled heavily from the original LP. Maybe it's familiarity with the technique, maybe it's the richness of the source material, maybe it's the condensed time frame but this approach works better than it did back in 2009, when the familiar album tracks wound up feeling repetitive. Here, the alternations in sequencing and selection wind up casting the period in a slightly different light, removing a creeping sense of doom without erasing the melancholy undertow.

Take the disc devoted to Tonight's The Night, for example. "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" isn't here since it was recorded in 1970, "Borrowed Tune" is moved to the On The Beach companion (Walk On (1973-1974)) since it was cut after the Tonight's The Night sessions, and the disc contains two lighter additions: a nearly effervescent reading of the After The Gold Rush outtake "Everybody's Alone" and a riotous version of "Raised on Robbery" featuring Joni Mitchell herself on lead vocals. Most of the album is here but as a collection of songs, this disc—which, unlike the rest of the discs on Vol. II, doesn't bear a different title than its parent album—doesn't feel nearly as heavy as the proper LP, a scenario that repeats elsewhere on the box. Everybody's Alone (1972-1973) doesn't feel as chaotic as Time Fades Away, Walk On doesn't drift toward doom, Crazy Horse runs free throughout Dume (1975), the companion to Zuma

All the emotions (and many of the elements) of the original albums are present, it's just that the context has changed. They're now part of a shambling autobiographical narrative, one where songs are repeated—there are no less than three versions of "Love/Art Blues" on The Old Homestead (1974), which is a collection of odds and ends, unlike the completed and shelved Homegrown—and Young changes bands as he changes his mood. Some of the songs remain the same, but the performances are quite different: early electric versions of "Ride My Llama" and "Pocahontas" on Dume are romps, lacking the stoned mysticism of their acoustic counterparts on Rust Never Sleeps. A wealth of unreleased songs (different than unreleased versions, of which there are many, including several that made their official debut on the 2014 box CSNY 1974) interweave with tunes that were scattered throughout American Stars N Bars and Hawks & Doves and remnants of the abandoned CSNY album Human Highway. All these orphans sound at home on this rambling, absorbing box because this is when they were written and recorded, during the period that was undeniably the richest of Young's career.

A box this exhaustive is challenging to consume in one sitting, which means it's often easiest to process as a series of highlights. There are plenty of treasures here, to be sure. Of late, I keep returning to the raucous Stray Gators material on the first disc, particularly a careening version of "Last Trip To Tulsa," the "Raised On Robbery" where Young's band happily play support to Joni Mitchell." I've been surprised by the sprightliness of the Zuma-era "Pocahontas" and "Hawaii," energized by the live-wire Crazy Horse on the closing live set Odeon Budokan (1976) and spending time sorting through The Old Homestead, which is so overloaded with unreleased material, I sometimes long for the guideposts the previously-released tracks provide elsewhere. What lingers in my mind, though, is how this deep, detailed portrait of the Ditch Years doesn't feel especially gloomy or sad to my ears. This could be how there's something deeply invigorating about hearing an artist at full flight, so enraptured with his abilities he keeps turning his songs inside out in hopes of something new. That process is fascinating and it's laid out plainly here through songs that are reworked both on stage and in the studio. Hearing it play out again and again through these ten discs restores a sense of wonder to a period that has perhaps grown a tad stale due to decades of myth and praise for the original records. Listening to this music as a whole, presented as a shaggy aural memoir, the twists and detours can provide a bit of a jolt but they also feel logical, since there is enough space to trace Neil's evolution.

As a listening experience, Neil Young Archives, Vol II (1972-1976) could be enough to convert a fairweather into a true believer, but let's be clear: at this point, only the hardcore will able to track down this set. It's streaming only at Neil's site, its first run sold out prior to its November 20, 2020 shipping date, and even with its spring re-pressing around the corner, it bears a hefty price tag of $159.98 for its standard edition. Nevertheless, those who choose to devote the cash and time to immerse themselves in this edition of Young's Archives will find it to be the set they've dreamed about since Decade II was first whispered about during the Ragged Glory years.