Neil Young – Chrome Dreams

A terrific look through the vaults...

How many times can you think of a sequel coming out before the original? There might be occasions where a Part II was filmed before Part III. Back To The Future for example. You also might have seen a Part II or Part III first. I’m still to see Nightmare Vacation I. There are two musical examples of this that come straight to mind. The first is the Beastie Boys final album, ‘Hot Sauce Committee Part Two’ which came out before the first. In fact, the first has yet to be released. The second is Neil Young. In 2007 the venerable songwriter released ‘Chrome Dreams II’. This was a spiritual follow up to his, at the time, unreleased 1977 album ‘Chrome Dreams’. The reasons why it was never released is Young folklore. The short answer is they were never meant to be released. It was a collection of songs pressed on an acetate in 1977. The songs were recorded from 1974 – 1977; some are fully formed, others just sketches. 

The opening track is definitely not a sketch. ‘Pocahontas’ was recorded in August 1976 and is ‘pretty much’ the same version that was released on ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ in 1979, though that version had some overdubs on it. The song is a ballad that starts off in the 17th century and ends in the 20th. Young said he was inspired to write it after the 45thAcademy Awards when Marlon Brando refused to accept his Oscar and the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather accepted it on his behalf. There are times when I think this might be Young’s best song. If it isn’t, then perhaps it’s my favourite Young song. There is something ethereal about ‘Pocahontas’. It showcases why Young is put on a pedestal and I can’t imagine any other musician writing it. 

‘Will Love’ on the other hand is about as lo-fi as it gets. The song was recorded in April 1976 at Young’s Broken Arrow ranch. The vocals are slightly muffled. You can’t really hear all the instrumentation as the mix is muddy – the ‘popping’ you hear is from an open fire. All these imperfections make you sit up and pay attention for its seven-minute duration. 

The next big song on the album is ‘Like A Hurricane’. This is the most raucous track on the album. Young and Crazy Horse are just letting rip and playing hard and frenetic. It was originally recorded in November 1975 with the vocals being overdubbed in January 1976. The song is ultimately about unrequited love. But instead of being the one jilted, it’s the other way. The protagonist has a massive attraction to someone but isn’t able to love them. The music, especially the solos, are melancholic and laced with regret. The album also features an exclusive. This version of ‘Hold Back The Tears’ hasn’t been previously released. It’s scratchier than the version on ‘American Stars ‘n Bars’. It’s also more of a country song, which changes the dynamic of it and makes it more pressing. 

The first thing you notice about ‘Chrome Dreams’ is how lo-fi it is. All the songs feel so immediate and are mostly acoustic ballads. Of course, ‘Like A Hurricane’ is a searing electric beast. ‘Sedan Delivery’ is proto-grunge. ‘Homegrown’ is a chord chugging beaut, but they have a slightly muddy sound to them, like they were taken directly from a mixing desk at a soundcheck. This gives the album a feel that a lot of the songwriter’s work doesn’t have. They are normally produced to the hilt, but here Neil Young sounds more vulnerable than he normally does, and this makes the songs more immediate and personal. 

‘Chrome Dreams’ plays like a Best Of – which it effectively is, at this point. All the songs have appeared on various studio, or live, albums over the years. In different forms. ‘Pocahontas’ features on multiple live albums, as does ‘Sedan Delivery’, but here its slower and with an extra verse. ‘Too Far Gone’ appeared in 1989’s ‘Freedom’, and ‘Stringman’ ended up on the ‘MTV Unplugged’ album. ‘Hold Back The Tears’ has different lyrics to the ‘American Stars N Bars’ studio version. Those tracks are all solid, but these feel like the definitive versions of those songs. If this album had been released at the time it could have been a landmark in his career. But it wasn’t. There was a bootleg version released on CD in the 90s, which was a ‘must have’ for Neil Young fans. The official version is virtually identical, expect it sounds much better. 

It does feel like Young’s estate is cleaning house a bit. Who knows what else they’ll release. ‘Old Ways I’? ‘Times Square’? ‘Oceanside-Countryside’? Or the calypso-tinged album ‘Island In The Sun’. We can but hope. However, this release as fulfilled all our chrome dreams.

8/10

Words: Nick Roseblade

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