Writing and recording songs about a break up has always forced artists to balance catharsis with reliving the pain. For the listener it’s unimaginably difficult to understand how someone can revisit those moments repeatedly in the studio and then take it a step further by performing that broken-hearted material for audiences around the world. It’s less surprising to find the painful experience overwhelming, which is where we find Neil Young’s latest archival release. During his prolific songwriting period in the 1970s he shelved the completed “Homegrown” album, which dealt with the aftermath of separation from actress Carrie Snodgrass, 45 years ago. Since then, it became one among many of his sought-after “lost” albums…until now when he finally set it free.
As Young goes through his voluminous material for the long-awaited second volume of his “Archives” career-spanning box set, he reconsidered his opinion of Homegrown.
In a statement announcing its release he said, “It’s the sad side of a love affair. The damage done. The heartache. I just couldn’t listen to it. I wanted to move on. So I kept it to myself, hidden away in the vault…but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts.”
Homegrown was meant to be a bridge between Harvest and Comes A Time. If you believe one version of why Young held the album back it involves a late night listening session that included members of The Band found who successfully urged him to release another recording on the reel-to-reel tape, the 1973-recorded Tonight’s The Night instead.
Recorded in analog in 1974 and early 1975 the mostly acoustic Homegrown features frequent collaborators Ben Keith and Tim Drummond as well as Levon Helm, Emmylou Harris and Karl T Himmel. John Hanlon restored the original master tapes for this 2020 version. In a September 2017 cover story focusing on nine known unreleased albums Young recorded, UNCUT magazine attempted a tracklist for Homegrown. Turns out the magazine got it half correct.
While most of the 12 tracks on the resurrected album are unreleased, others have previously turned up – “Love Is A Rose” on 1977’s Decade, “Star of Bethlehem” on 1977’s American Stars ‘n Bars, “Little Wing” and “This Old Homestead” on 1980’s Hawks & Doves and “White Line” on 1990’s Ragged Glory.
The forlorn opening number, “Separate Ways,” finds Young moving forward after his relationship crashed and burned. The musical accompaniment mimics his timeless hit “Old Man” but at a hazy, shell-shocked pace. The rhythm barely speeds up on an attempt at reconciliation on “Try” or on the mournful take of “Love Is A Rose.” An ode to growing marijuana livens up his spirits on the electric “Homegrown” while “White Line” offers a tribute to his new “friend.” It sets up the narrative storytelling on “Florida” that connects to Young gliding through life and one-night stands on “Kansas.” “Star of Bethlehem” ends the album in a most bitter view of love. The song’s instrumentation and Harris’ honeyed back up vocals sugarcoat the view in order to make the cynicism go down easy. After all that time of using drugs and sex to dull the pain, it still lingers.
Not seeing the potential for hit singles, Young’s record company wasn’t pleased with “Homegrown” and didn’t want to release it. While songs such as “Love Is A Rose” became a clap along concert favorite, the album’s worthiness rests in the singer-songwriter’s openness to peel off the scab of love gone bad and the messy reaction to its demise. The passing of years has made this collection a prescient artistic statement, an early hangover to the Feel Good Decade.