For a not insignificant portion of 1974 Neil Young could be found sequestered in a poolside bungalow at the Chateau Marmont, Los Angeles’ most myth and magic-draped lodgings. A faux French fancy hiding in plain sight on Sunset Boulevard, the hotel has over the years hidden enough stories and secrets to make your eyes pop from their sockets. Including – until now – ‘Homegrown’, the long-unreleased album that Young began crafting after his fifth studio album, the moody, mellow and casually apocalyptic ‘On The Beach’.
It was pretty much a commercial flop, and Young’s record label Reprise were pretty keen for their star artist to have another hit; something a little less angry, something a little less bleak, something a little more along the lines of 1970’s tender breakthrough ‘After The Gold Rush’ and its sweeping follow-up ‘Harvest’, the US’s top-selling album of 1972.
They asked to hear his new material, Young obliged and started playing his guests a tape of the cheery ‘Homegrown’ sessions. Somehow a pair of dark, harrowing tracks about the drug-related deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry slipped in too. Everyone in the room was stunned by their honesty; this was the material Young had to put out. In agreement, Young abandoned ‘Homegrown’ and his next album would instead be the grief-stricken ‘Tonight’s The Night’, which peaked at a so-so Number 25 in the Billboard chart.
Over the coming years the occasional ‘Homegrown’ track would see the light of day, but the full body of work was shuttered away. Until now. Dragged out of the shed at the bottom of the canyon and remastered from the original tapes in order to shake off the dust of 45-odd years, the album is finally getting its rightful time in the sun.
Of its 12 songs – recorded in late 1974 and early 1975 – seven have never been released before, including heartfelt opener ‘Separate Ways’. Over Levon Helm’s solid but minimal drum line comes a chorus up there with Young’s best, as melodic as it is thoughtful, as pensive as it is powerful. A sonic red herring, it’s perhaps the most downbeat moment on the record, which is overall a pretty chipper thing. The upbeat Try follows, a sweet little shuffle with Emmylou Harris on backing vocals and Young at his most positive, crooning: “We’ve got lots of time / To get together if we try.”
Mexico sees Young stepping out with just a piano for company and thoughts of travelling South to idyllic “sandy beaches” while on the brief, beautiful ‘Kansas’, Young’s vocal is hushed but confident, delivered to a lover whose identity he isn’t quite sure of yet, but for whom he’s already fallen hard. “It’s so good to have you sleeping by my side / Although I’m not so sure if I even know your name / Hold on baby hold on / We can go gliding through the air,” he muses caddishly over gently picked guitar and the occasional harmonica flourish.
While the bluesy, largely instrumental ‘We Don’t Smoke It No More’ is little more than a jumped-up jam session, the far-out spoken word of ‘Florida’ offers an left-of-centre insight into Young’s mid-1970s mind, which seems a confusing place. Or maybe, as the album’s title suggests, he’s just a bit stoned – that would certainly account for the squeal of a wet finger around the rim of a glass as Young dives into some surrealist stream-of-consciousness storytelling. The freewheeling ‘Vacancy’ is the last ‘new’ song here, an instant classic (if you can call 46 years trapped in the vaults ‘instant’).
The first recordings of songs that would appear on later albums from 1975 to 1980 boost the record into something not just of niche interest to Neil Young diehards, but something with universal appeal. Here the sugary ‘Love Is A Rose’ – first released by the majestic Linda Ronstadt in 1975 – sees Young being just about as cute as he’ll ever be (“I wanna see what’s never been seen / I wanna live that age old dream”) while the sparse ‘White Line’ and devastating ‘Little Wing’ prove his masterful way with deceptively simple balladry.
The hip-shakin’, joint-rollin’ title track – which would first be aired on 1977’s ‘American Stars ‘N Bars’ alongside ‘Star of Bethlehem’ – is proof, too, that Neil Young has always known how to have fun, but – as with the drawn-out release of ‘Homegrown’ – it will always be on his terms.
Release date: June 19
Record label: Reprise Records