On December 11, 1974, Neil Young entered a Nashville studio with new songs in mind. Fellow travelers Ben Keith (pedal steel) and Tim Drummond (bass) were on hand, as was the Band’s Levon Helm (drums) and, presumably, kindred spirit Emmylou Harris (though she may have overdubbed her harmonies later). After a few days, the sessions – with drummer Karl T. Himmel taking over for Helm after three songs – relocated to Neil’s Broken Arrow Ranch and then to L.A. Soon enough, after resurrecting two songs recorded over the summer, a new album was born…but, until now, never released.
It’s a story most older fans know, of course, as Neil told it in a 1975 interview with Cameron Crowe: At the last minute, he shelved the ready-to-roll Homegrown and released instead “the most liquid album” he ever made, Tonight’s the Night: “I had a playback party for Homegrown for me and about 10 friends. We were out of our minds. We all listened to the album and Tonight’s the Night happened to be on the same reel. So we listened to that too, just for laughs. No comparison.”
“A lot of people would probably say that [Homegrown] is better,” he went on to explain. “I know the first time I listened back on Tonight’s the Night it was the most out-of-tune thing I’d ever heard. Everyone’s off-key. I couldn’t hack it. But by listening to those two albums back to back at the party, I started to see the weaknesses in Homegrown. I took Tonight’s the Night because of its overall strength in performance and feeling. The theme may be a little depressing, but the general feeling is much more elevating than Homegrown.”
He also says, “I’m sure parts of Homegrown will surface on other albums of mine. There’s some beautiful stuff that Emmylou Harris sings harmony on. I don’t know. That record might be more what people would rather hear from me now, but it was just a very down album. It was the darker side to Harvest. A lot of the songs had to do with me breaking up with my old lady. It was a little too personal…it scared me.”
Forty-five years later, on the Neil Young Archives, he expanded on why he left the album locked away: “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, on the shelf, in the back of my mind…but I should have shared it. It’s actually beautiful. That’s why I made it in the first place. Sometimes life hurts. You know what I mean.”
“Separate Ways” leads off the album and finds him ruminating on his relationship with Carrie Snodgress. He’s sad it’s over, but doesn’t wish away what they had: “We go our separate ways/Lookin’ for better days/Sharing our little boy/Who grew from joy back then…”
“Vacancy,” recorded a month later at the Broken Arrow Ranch, finds him in a less forgiving mood – he casts his lover as a pod person, just about: “I look in your eyes and I don’t know what’s there/You poison me with that long vacant stare/You dress like her and she walks in your words/You frown at me and then you smile at her…”
“Star of Bethlehem,” which was eventually released on American Stars & Bars, circles round to the top, thematically speaking: “Ain’t it hard when you wake up in the morning/And you find out that those other days are gone/All you have is memories of happiness lingering on…”
In between, surprisingly, not all songs excavate love gone wrong. The title track – known to many via American Stars ’n Bars, celebrates homegrown dope; “Florida” does too, in that it’s stoned patter that hopes for profundity but comes across as pablum; “We Don’t Smoke It No More,” recorded on New Year’s Eve, is a bluesy jam; and the delicate “Little Wing” is absolutely gorgeous.
Through the years, some tracks – some re-cut, others not – surfaced on other albums – “Homegrown” and “Star of Bethlehem” on American Stars ’n Bars, “Love Is a Rose” on Decade, “Little Wing” on Hawks & Doves, and “White Line” on Ragged Glory. Recorded during the same sessions, “The Old Homestead” wound up on Hawks & Doves while “Deep Forbidden Lake” landed on Decade; and, recorded the same day as “Love Is a Rose,” the CSN-laden “Through My Sails” closed Zuma.
Listening to Homegrown, one thing is obvious: It’s no match for the ache and gravitas that is Tonight’s the Night. That’s not a knock, mind you; few albums are. But it’s also not as great as some critics – who’ve obviously gone mad after months of lockdown – seem to think. Rolling Stone calls it an “unearthed masterpiece” in a track-by-track analysis while Variety dubs it “one of the best albums from his 1970s golden era.” It’s neither. Rolling Stone’s main review by Angie Martoccio gets a little closer to the truth, though the four-and-a-half stars it’s awarded is one star too many. To my ears, it’s a solid set that – aside from “Florida” – is quite a treat, though it is sometimes bleak due to the heartache that fuels the songs.
If it had been released in place of Tonight’s the Night, would much have changed? TTN was more of an artistic than commercial success, after all, peaking at only No. 25 on the Billboard charts. While Homegrown – which features a friendlier, Harvest-like sound – isn’t an artistic equal to TTN, my hunch is it would have done better when it comes to sales, as some tracks are more radio-friendly, but doubt it would have done much to change the arc of Neil’s career.
That said, Homegrown’s all right with me… it’s Neil. It’s new (mostly). Some may be disappointed at first, due to the hype that preceded its release, but to those I’d say give it a few listens. The potency creeps up on you.