Neil Young: Hitchhiker (Reprise)

Neil Young’s always been a prolific songwriter, and his discography is complete with gaps where unreleased albums should be. Some of those albums were completed and then rethought, while others were mere passing fancies that Young revealed at the time, with no more than the mention of an album title. Hitchhiker falls into the latter category; a recording session that sounded fantastic, and one that might have temporarily seemed like something that might be cool to release.

Calling Hitchhiker a lost album is a bit spurious, though, as there doesn’t seem to be any real evidence that such an album was ever really planned. The contents, however, does provide a pretty good backstory: in August of 1976, Young, in the studio with friend and producer David Briggs, is asked to play what he’s been working on, and alone with an acoustic guitar, he does so. He knocks out a handful of songs, all of which were recorded in their stripped-down, naked glory. A few of them would become classics; “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger” would be highlights of his next album, Rust Never Sleeps, while “Human Highway” would soon appear on Comes A Time.  

Hitchhiker’s biggest draw is its two unreleased numbers. “Hawaii” is a narrative about a traveler; at two and a half minutes, it feels oddly brief, and its story isn’t particularly well developed, though at this point, Neil Young on acoustic guitar can do no wrong, and it sounds fantastic, even if, well, it’s really just a scrap. Better still is “Give Me Strength,” a song that Young was fond of playing live that year, and one that has made a rare appearance over the past few decades, but had yet to see an official release. It’s a gorgeous ballad, and one whose regulation to the vaults is quite puzzling indeed.

But that’s the nature of Neil Young, who has a history of ditching some of his best work and releasing sub-par material in its stead. Much of what is found here on Hitchhiker would see the light of day in vastly different form, but these takes are beautiful and can stand well enough on their own. That Young seems interested in opening up his archives and his vaults to his fans is a good thing, and in spite of its brevity, Hitchhiker is a welcome addition to the collection of any Neil Young fan.

Hitchhiker is now available from Reprise Records/

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