It's not until four tracks into Hitchhiker, the old new album from Neil Young seeing release forty years after it was recorded, that Neil Young fanatics will hear a song they probably haven't encountered before. Eight of Hitchhiker's ten songs showed up in different recordings elsewhere in Young's rich discography since these stripped back sessions in Malibu, but Hitchhiker is a valuable document - more music from the most fertile period of one of rock music's most enduring voices.
In the late 70's, many of Young's contemporaries were falling off. Rock music was killed by punk and New Wave, but Neil Young and Crazy Horse continued to thrive. There's an adage that says that their 1978 live album Rust Never Sleeps (split into an acoustic side and an electric side) invented grunge eleven years before Nirvana.'s debut It's hard to deny when the blasts of heavy guitar roar of "Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)" find Young singing the words that would eventually appear in Kurt Cobain's suicide note.
Three tracks from Rust Never Sleeps appear on Hitchhiker. Opening with "Pocahontas," one of Young's most seeringly political and downright beautiful lyrics, and an acoustic rendition of "Powderfinger" which would later open the electric side with a crash, Hitchhiker finds the luminous live versions downsized into spare, lonely, but no less magnetic renditions. The strange and playful "Ride My Llama" provides a gentle diversion.
It was these exact recordings of the sharp "Captain Kennedy" and "Campaigner" that appeared on 1980's Hawks & Doves and 1977's Decade respectively, but here among this collection of acoustic gems, they shine brighter. The dark and percussive "Hawaii," with its eerie chorus, and the beatific "Give Me Strength" are the two songs unearthed by Hitchhiker. Appearing directly in the centre of the record they have an uncanniness - something almost voyeuristic about hearing them and the cracks in Young's unwieldy voice.
It's fascinating to hear the way Young draws rage and drama out of little more than his acoustic guitar. The title track appeared on the 2010 album Le Noise in a raging electric version. Here, Young attacks the strings and injects bitter venom into his voice, summoning awesome power without the benefit of an amp.
It's on a much gentler note that "Human Highway" and a piano-led version of "The Old Country Waltz," end the record. Certain tracks included here are less essential and more just curiosities for the avid Neil Young fan. Essentially a collection of demos, this isn't an apocryphal classic to file alongside Tonight's the Night and On the Beach, but in the late 70s it was hard to fault Neil Young. And it's hard to fault him now too.
Hitchhiker is out on CD, vinyl, and digital formats on Friday September 8th.