Neil Young was a star for the first time in 1973. And yet even though he was star, and he was expected to pump out further “Heart of Gold” style hits, his life was a mess. Whether or not he may acknowledge it now, he had drug issues. And within a rather short span of time, the rhythm guitarist for one of his bands died, and then a roadie died, both of heroin overdoses.
And he was expected to keep playing “Heart of Gold” and writing more stuff like it. Instead he made this record. I can’t remember why it wasn’t released for 2 years. I’ve heard both the label and Young blamed for it. I don’t know which to believe. The idea was it was un-releasable, as it consists of rough takes, most of which were recorded in a day. (Believe it or not, an even more ragged version supposedly exists.)
It’s hard for us to look at a famous record like this and understand why there was fear (from either the artist or the label) to release it. We know it now. But this was before punk. There was pretty much no precedent for putting out something like this, certainly from a (now) major artist. The only precedent I can think of is Get Back/Let it Be, and that was produced to death in order to hide the warts before it was finally made public. So we shouldn’t be surprised that even though it may not sound rough to modern ears, it sure did in 1973. (On the Beach, for example, sounds relatively polished comparatively.)
Most of Young’s songs capture not only his grief and confusion, but the huge amount of confusion that was being experienced culturally in the early to mid ’70s, and the supposedly fulfilled American dream fell apart. Literally nobody else at the time was writing stuff like this. Dylan and Lennon were, but that was about personal demons. The exasperation with life in the US that is in these songs is kind of unparalleled at the time I think. And the aesthetic matches the sort of boozy, drugged “I can’t tell if I’m happy, or sad, or just confused” vibe of the lyrics.
Not my favourite Young record, but among the very best singer-songwriter records of the ’70s, and probably ever.