Something of a mythological creature has finally seen release.
Something of a mythological creature, Neil Young’s Hitchhiker has been vaguely referred to as a session that resulted in a cohesive whole–(or, in Young’s words, “complete piece,” something that could read as indicated or as an implied scatological dismissal. The album was never bootlegged like Chrome Dreams or Homegrown, existing in Young’s seemingly inexhaustible archives. Now, more than 40 years later, the legendary session has been given a proper, loving release. Unlike other barrel-scraping releases, Hitchhiker stands confidently amongst Young’s best work of the ‘70s; his voice and guitar playing both strong and deliberate, yet with an accessible intimacy that is at times breathtaking, particularly on the previously unreleased “Give Me Strength.”
Consisting of songs that would largely appear piecemeal across albums decades apart, Hitchhiker offers a rare glimpse into the world of Neil Young in 1976. Captured all in one long, drug-fueled session in Malibu by Young’s longtime producer David Briggs, the performances possess an urgency and immediacy that more often than not vastly surpasses their more familiar counterparts. On “Pocahontas,” more so than on Rust Never Sleeps, Young sounds fully invested not only in the moment, but in his vocals and illustrative chord work. This not only sets the bar high but establishes the quiet momentum that will carry on through the remainder of the album.
Similarly, “Powderfinger” plays with a more impactful immediacy than the version on Rust Never Sleeps, despite Young’s hesitant entry. It’s a far more human performance, one in which he is fully invested, cut through with a resigned emotionality that helps further enhance the lyrics: “Shelter me from the powder and the finger/ Cover me with the thought that pulled the trigger/ Just think of me as one you never figured/ You fade away so young/ With so much left undone/ Remember me to my love, I know I’ll miss her.” You can hear an audible break in his voice as the last syllables fade.
The slow, stoned laugh that begins “Hawaii” seems indicative of the atmosphere within which the recordings were captured. Yet the moment he comes in, his voice is confident and assured, soaring to the upper reaches of his range on the third syllable (“ha-why-EEEEEEE”). Likewise, “Give Me Strength” shows a fragile intimacy in which each and every sound in the room can not only be heard, but also felt. These two previously unreleased tracks serve as the album’s centerpiece, augmenting the more well-known material yet still sounding very much of a piece.
Only the Seussian “Ride My Llama” feels lacking, sounding as though Young’s attention was drifting along with the smoke no doubt swirling about. It’s one of the few instances in which the well-known version – again on Rust Never Sleeps – beats it. Fortunately, it’s followed quickly by the autobiographical title track, which, stripped of the heavy electric trappings heard on Le Noise, becomes a far more delicate work. It’s a sharp contrast to Young’s revisionist take of less than a decade ago. Here the story comes fully to life, Young’s conversational lyrics carrying the narrative across the country from his drug-fueled days in Toronto to California. This type of naked, unaffected approach serves him well, the delicacy of his performances drawing the listener in with each and every strum.
Far more polished than the mere demos the suits at Reprise originally perceived these recordings to be, Young here possesses a warmth and resonance that he would revisit again over the years, but never quite as brilliantly. Stripped of the slightest traces of artifice, Young’s songwriting gifts are on full display throughout. This is the unplugged album fans will have long awaited without even knowing it, standing confidently amongst the best of his ‘70s output, if not his entire career.