Album Review: Neil Young Returns with New Old Album, Or an Old New Album: The Hitchhiker


Neil Young’s career saw several peaks. He was a darling of pop music for his work with Buffalo Springfield in the 1960s. After the Gold Rush is still one of the best rock albums ever.  His work with Crosby, Still, Nash and Young is revered. His work in the late 1980s proved he was still rocking hard and “Rockin’ in the Free World.” With the release of Hitchhiker, he tries hard to prove he is still rocking hard, but overall the album fails to lift him up to his former glory. Neil Young originally recorded Hitchhiker in 1976 in a single session. Most of the songs have been released in other formats, but a few are appearing for the first time.

Though recorded four decades ago, this appears to be the work of an older man. Desperation and exhaustion come through with nearly every song.  The songs represent a mish-mash of trying weary themes and the signature Neil Young vocals and cords that represent his best work. Here Young was experimenting and making a stand on his art. For that I salute Mr. Young.

Musically, it is underproduced and surely represents his definitive style of 1970s. In some ways, this is him at his best. A guitar, a band behind him, his strained voice always full of longing. In other ways, the album fails to capitalize on his strengths. But, this is also Neil Young just before his resurgence as a solo artist during the period of “No Nukes” and “Hey Hey.” This is a calm before the storm.  

In 1976, Young and Stephen Stills also released Long May You Run, which seemed at the time to me, the album of a man ready to retire. In 1979, his style and voice were revitalized as he sang that Rock and Roll will never die and that it was better to burn out than to fade away. Hitchhiker would have been him fading away, maybe it is an appropriate album for this century.  

Several times he reaches for a high note and doesn’t quite grasp it.  If it is true that man’s reach should always exceed his grasp, then Neil Young exposes his humanity here.

I have included some notes on particular songs and the highlights.

“Pocahontas”: I have no way to condense this song down for understanding. It appears to be a ballad lamenting the victimization of Native Americans. It’s meandering, lacks poetry, and includes these heinous verses:

I wish I was a trapper,

I would give 1000 pelts

To sleep with Pocahontas

And find out how she felt.

She felt like you strung together images of Marlon Brando, the Aurorae borealis, white rapacity, and (I want to say) Wounded Knee to exploit natives. That’s how I felt.

“Powderfinger”: This is one of my favorite songs of Neil Young, and it still holds up today.    

Give me strength

Lonely man I hate myself to be

Is not as bad as somethings I have seen.

This is how it starts, and there is no revelation after this, just more wandering. Some may listen to this and find wisdom and inspiration, but I found no such strength in it. The bridge on this song seems to be too much for him to sing.  His voice cannot not quite match his vision.

“Hawaii/Ride My Llama/Hitchhiker/Campaigner”: Lodged in the middle of this album are these four songs that left me feeling that this was a Neil Young cover band from the upper great lakes. Or maybe New Jersey. Anyway, when I went to finish this review I had no notes on these songs and could not remember them. They were not unpleasant, just not memorable.

“Human Highway”: My first thought was this song maybe about human trafficking? No, it’s kind of a lesser version of Tom Cochrane’s “Life is a Highway.” I wondered if this was an overused Canadian trope comparing life to the highways? It asks pressing questions:

Now my name is on the line,

How can people get so unkind?

It gave me something to think about as I wrote this review.

“Old Country Waltz”:  This song touches on his earliest country influences and folk affections of his youth. This may be the song where his aging is most in his self-awareness, even though he was approaching 30 when he wrote and recording it.  

If you love Neil Young, you will like this album, but it is easy to see why this album was not released when recorded. If you are not familiar with his greatest works, it is unlikely that this album will make you a fan. This is not a bad album, it’s a good album with weaknesses.

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