Although Hitchhiker isn’t Neil Young’s first abandoned album to be unearthed later, it’s certainly his most realized — impressive, given these songs were recorded quickly in a single session in 1976. Armed with only an acoustic guitar and harmonica (and a studio piano for “The Old Country Waltz”), Young left the studio that evening having recorded some of his strongest songs to date; he envisioned the lo-fi recording to be released as is before Reprise, his record label, flat-out objected.
After he abandoned the recordings, Young used rerecordings of eight of these songs on a series of future albums between 1977’s American Stars ‘n Bars (“The Old Country Waltz”) and 2010’s Le Noise (“Hitchhiker”). Elsewhere, songs like “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger” (both redone with Crazy Horse for 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps), along with the underrated “Campaigner” (re-recorded for 1977 collection Decade) and “Human Highway” (later on 1978’s Comes a Time) show just how fertile and adventurous of a songwriter Young had become by the mid ’70s.
Although it would be easy (but erroneous) to overlook this collection as an unessential novelty (especially since one of the two unreleased songs, “Hawaii,” stands as a bit of a throwaway), it’s fascinating to hear these songs sequenced together, as the album takes on a bit of a new narrative that shows 1976-era Young as a man out on his own, fearing the unknown while dealing with the harsh realities of life, as laid out by songs like “Powderfinger,” “Give Me Strength” and the title track.
Although Young’s had plenty of highs and lows throughout his sprawling discography, there’s no question that each of his 38 studio LPs were results of a particular vision, and Hitchhiker benefits greatly from this fleeting vision captured over a single evening in 1976.
Dive into Neil Young’s back catalogue via Umusic. (Warner)