Young Is A Thorny Rose


Neil Young: Homegrown (Reprise)

There's a common therapeutic strategy: you write a letter to a person expressing your feelings, and then you don't send it.

But what happens if, 45 years later, you want to buy an expensive train set or whatever, so you sell the letter? That's basically the story of Homegrown. Young wrote and recorded it in 1974-75 while his relationship with Carrie Snodgrass crumbled, scheduled its release, and then withdrew it. To fill the gap, Reprise finally released Tonight's the Night, so that worked out well.

Over the ensuing decades, Young found places to recycle the best songs on Homegrown: "Star of Bethlehem" and the title track (the latter re-recorded with Crazy Horse and much the better for it) filled out the odds-and-sods side two of American Stars and Bars (1977), "Little Wing" showed up on Hawks & Doves (1980), as did Homegrown outtake "The Old Homestead." Young  first gave "Love Is a Rose" to Linda Ronstadt, who hit the country charts with it in 1975; then Young's version was included on his 1977 three-LP retrospective Decade, a pioneer in the concept of using such compilations to let fans finally hear previously unreleased tracks. "White Line," a duo with The Band's Robbie Robertson recorded in London while on tour, was re-recorded with Crazy Horse for Ragged Glory (1990); the duo version has a certain off-hand charm.

All of which raises the question, how about the seven tracks on Homegrown that haven't been on an LP before?

The only entirely brilliant previously unheard track is "Vacancy," a full-band rocker that I'm surprised Young never recycled sooner. Perhaps he didn’t because it's so lyrically vicious towards, presumably, Snodgrass. Nonetheless, this by itself is enough to make me buy the album.

As for the rest, they sound like therapy and filler, though that doesn't keep a couple of them from being worthy of release.

The three therapy tracks lead off the album. Perhaps the first two could have been developed into better songs with some editing of the lyrics, which are often clunky and awkward, not so much art as merely morose musings. Okay, yes, some of Young's best '70s work could be characterized as morose musings, but not merely. The musings on "Separate Ways" and, especially, "Try" are just poorly written. From the latter: "Darlin', the door is open / to my heart, and I’ve been hopin’ / you won’t be the one to struggle with the key / We’ve got lots of time to get together if we try." And you’ve got to hear it sung to fully appreciate its awkwardness. Nor does the song get better than that horrible opening metaphor. The bridge: "And I try to wash my hands / and I try to make amends / and I try to count my friends." "Mexico" shows promise, but at 1:41, isn't developed into a full song. (A concert version was included on the obscure Young film Trunk Show.)

The most blatant entry in the filler is "Florida," which is Young talking (literally talking) about a UFO experience while somebody runs a wet finger along the rim of a glass, sounding like lazy feedback. After having heard it once, I've been skipping it ever since. "Kansas" is two barely there verses about a one-night stand; Young sings so quietly, it's almost as though he's embarrassed (though not so embarrassed that he didn't perform it live for Trunk Show). Almost elevating itself above filler is "We Don’t Smoke It No More," a blues that's musically attractive, with some good harmonica and guitar by Young over band backing -- but the minimal lyric is a drug goof. Fortunately the focus is firmly on the music.

So, the math. One excellent "new" song, two of interest, five we're already familiar with, one of which is an alternate version worth hearing, and four that do not live up to release-worthy standards. But I'll be purchasing it anyway.

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