First Impressions: Summer Songs by Neil Young

On Christmas, Neil Young gifted his fans with Summer Songs, an unreleased album that he recorded by himself at his Broken Arrow Ranch in 1987. At present, it’s only available to stream over at the Neil Young Archives website, which is free to all for the holidays, but will be included on the Neil Young Archives Vol. III box set that’s slated for release in 2022.

The compelling eight-song set is acoustic throughout, though he does supplement one song with synthesized bass, percussion and keyboards. In some respects, it’s akin to the acoustic Hitchhiker album that he shelved in 1976 and didn’t release until 2017, as most of the songs surfaced on future albums. And like that set of songs, these are all gems.

“American Dream” wound up as the snappy title track of CSNY’s 1988 reunion album, which also featured “Name of Love.” “Someday,” “Wrecking Ball” and “Hanging on a Limb” are among the linchpins of Freedom, his “comeback” album in 1989. “For the Love of Man” provides heart to his 2012 classic with Crazy Horse, Psychedelic Pill; and “One of These Days” is one of many highlights from Harvest Moon, his 1992 sequel to his classic 1972 outing, Harvest. And though it’s yet to make its way onto an official album, “Last of His Kind” is known to many fans due to Neil playing it at Farm Aid through the years.

In a conversation with Rick Rubin on Rubin’s Broken Record podcast, Neil called the tracks “sketches” and not demos, which I imagine means he heard them as pencilled outlines and not completed works. Still, what’s here is starkly beautiful and far better than what he released around the same time (Landing on Water, Life, This Note’s for You and, with CSNY, American Dream).

“American Dream,” which chronicles the falls from grace of Gary Hart, Oliver North and Jimmy Swaggart, benefits from a slowed-down tempo and Neil’s high lonesome vocals, which swaps in a mournful quality for the sarcasm that accented the CSNY version. It opens with what we’ve long heard as the fifth stanza (“Don’t know where things went wrong/Might have been when you were young and strong”) and includes a second verse excised from the later version: 

Love brought joy and life brought pain
The emptiness of money and a name
After that things got a little rough
In the American dream… 

“Someday,” too, has additional lyrics, plus the stripped-down arrangement removes the “praise the Lord” chants in the background as well as the tenor sax. It sparkles in a way the Freedom version does not, and I enjoy the Freedom version. “Hanging on a Limb,” another Freedom track, is as beautiful here as it is there, though Linda Ronstadt’s supporting vocals are missed. 

Only “Wrecking Ball,” another Freedom highlight (and eventual Emmylou Harris classic) is completely recast, with lyrics thematically out of sync with the gorgeous melody. It’s obvious why he rewrote it, in other words. Here it opens with:

You drown yourself in booze
And party through the night
You think the time is wrong
But the time is right
And what you can’t face yourself
You dump on someone else… 

The Freedom version, on the other hand, opens with “My life’s an open book/You read it on the radio/We got nowhere to hide/We got nowhere to go/But if you still decide/That you want to take a ride…” It’s much more romantic and fanciful.

All in all, as I said up top, Summer Songs is a compelling listen. It reflects a mature Neil grappling with the complexities of adult life circa the mid-1980s. I highly recommend it.

The track list:

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