Neil Young Releases His Long-Delayed, Deeply Personal Album ‘Homegrown’
In 1974, Neil Young puzzled critics when he followed up his monumental “Harvest” with the jarringly raw “On the Beach.” While the bleakness of that release surely stemmed in part from Young’s personal trauma at the time, it was a different album that he directly poured his heart into. Young had a change of heart after recording it and held it back, deeming it too personal. Written in the period after Young’s split with actor Carrie Snodgress, the mother of his first son, “Homegrown” captures the ever sincere songwriter at a particularly piercing time. Young has described the record as representing “the sad side of a love affair.” Many of the album’s songs have long circulated among fans, with five of its tracks making their way onto various Young releases. Only now, however, has Young divulged the record in its entirety. Nearly a half century after its recording, it provides a missing link, filling out one of the most celebrated eras in Young’s prolific career.
Opener “Separate Ways” is an effective encapsulation of the entire album. The song plods along sluggishly, and Young sings with an audible ache in his voice, but a cool overall resignation, as he attempts to reframe a traumatic upturn, reflecting “Happiness is never through / It’s only a change of plan.” The song is unsparingly autobiographical, describing a stage, “as we go our separate ways, looking for better days / Sharing our little boy, who grew from joy back then.” There’s a tone of resolution throughout the song, and a brief harmonica bit at the end is the perfect conclusive touch. “Try” is a natural extension of the same sentiment. Young has always been a particularly candid, authentic singer, but there’s something about how his notes fall slightly flat in this song that especially humanizes him. Young keeps it so personal that he throws in quotes from Snodgress like “I’d like to take a chance, but shit, Mary, I can’t dance.” Emylous Harris chimes in in the chorus for a meager “ooh” that makes all the difference. Considering the backstory, the interjection of a female voice, however brief, suggests an eventual coming to terms, seconded by the way the song develops around Young’s lone, unadorned vocal into a layered, harmonious tune.
“Mexico” is a brief, loosely structured moment of reflective self-pity. Over plaintive piano lines, Young bemoans, “The feeling’s gone,” in a compelling chorus that dissipates into slapdash poetry as he shrugs, “I think I’ll go to Mexico” with the cavalier reasoning that “Daddy is a traveling man.” “Love Is a Rose,” which was based on an earlier song of Young’s called “Dance Dance Dance” and has made its way onto numerous other Young releases, cheers up the mood somewhat. In a twangy, harmonica-heavy number that rings like an old folk ditty, a momentous guitar spurs on Young’s strained vocal as he muses, “Love is a rose but you better not pick it / It only grows when it’s on the vine.” It’s a succinct summation of fragile, fleeting love in its aftermath. At one point, Young sings, “I wanna go to an old ho-down,” anticipating the title track, which sounds like the musical fulfilment of such pioneer spirit. A jamboree built around a driving bluesy riff, it seems to have come together naturally around the titular term. An upbeat track with lighthearted, throwaway lyrics about going with the flow, it’s a diversion from the prevailing, hefty subject matter.
The album takes a strange turn upon the spoken word piece “Florida.” Young tells a bizarre, apocryphal story, accompanied by kaleidoscopic, serrated noise, reportedly captured from just the brim of a glass. Perhaps this arbitrary inclusion is meant to capture the surreal essence that life must have assumed at the turbulent time when Young recorded this album. The feeling bleeds into “Kansas,” on which he admits, “I feel like I just woke up from a bad dream.” In this case, however, he focuses on a brighter moment in the hazy period, continuing, “And it’s so good to have you sleeping by my side.” Of course, music is a means of preserving an elusive feeling, and Young celebrates the memory here, reasoning, “It doesn’t matter if you’re the one / ‘Cause we’ll know before we’re done.” “We Don’t Smoke It” finds Young and the band getting down to a bygone sound, settling into a groove, and building to the titular declaration in a farcical bout of boogie woogie piano, harmonica, and lap steel guitar. In the context, the song functions as both comic relief and perhaps a deceptively cheery admission that a love affair has come to an end.
“White Line” is a winsome, reflective number that captures the spirit of living on the road, with a humble surrender to life’s curveballs, and a resilience in the face of it all. “Vacancy” is another intermittent, upbeat number among the otherwise heavyhearted fare. Young asks, “Are you my friend? / Are you my enemy?” over a plodding rocker that mocks the uncertainty of the situation at large. “Little Wing,” a stripped-down guitar and harmonica tune, is a particularly poetic moment. Young entreats the titular entity not to leave, arguing, “The winter is the best time of them all,” in a way that suggests either the irrationality of despair or just a bona fide individualism. Finally, “Star of Bethlehem” grounds Young’s musings in a light shuffle that gains traction as the track develops. Emilou Harris joins in midway, and a third voice enters in the final third. After everything, Young considers, “Maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn’t a star at all, “ and the frail voice that began the album now proceeds forward with new validation, as the music winds down in a concerted singalong.
Neil Young is an artist who has always worn his heart on his sleeve, so the fact that he long considered “Homegrown” too personal to release speaks volumes. While the album is indeed revealing, it’s an unassuming set of songs that never descends into melodrama. Young ponders and plods along with a humble modesty, interspersing the heavier moments with upbeat numbers, but never straying far from the matter at the core. The songs are short and sincere, unfiltered and honest, in a style more akin to the country rock of “Harvest” than the stretch of albums that immediately followed. As such, “Homegrown” is a key chapter from one of Young’s most celebrated eras, and a testament to the idea that the greatest art often arises from troubled times.
“Homegrown” is available June 19 on Apple Music.