After Neil Young left the beach in '74, and somehow made both Zuma and Tonight's the Night in '75, he recorded a little acoustic album in August of 1976 called Hitchhiker. The album came during a sprawling two year session in which Neil and his producer, Dave Briggs, would retreat to Indigo Ranch Studios in Malibu to record music. They only did this on full moons, because when you're famous and talented you can get away with flights of fancy as long as you keep bringing that heat. Young was in the middle of a serious hot streak, so he was more than allowed to do weird shit like only record music during full moons. With the help of booze, weed, and cocaine, Neil, Briggs, and engineer John Hanlon set out to record ten new songs Young had been cultivating over previous full moon sessions. The album is finally seeing its release, 41 years later.
Normally, an unreleased acoustic album is nothing more than a money grab—a way to make a quick buck off an obsessive fan base. When Warner Music Group-owned Reprise Records announced the coming release of Hitchhiker, it appeared to be a sly attempt at Young looking to get some of that Pono money back in his pocket. (This is an excellent time to remind you that no one cares about music anymore and for the fair price of $400 plus between $10 and $25 per album, you could have fit a portable Pono in your pocket, and had room for cash, nicotine gum, or whatever you carry in your pocket, but apparently high fidelity audio appreciation is dead.) But upon hearing the opening strums of Hitchhiker's "Pocahontas" through the speakers, it becomes immediately clear that the acoustic session is a special record indeed—which should have never been up for debate considering it came during Neil Young's all-time run of outstanding records.
And these little, intimate, ferocious slices of acoustic songs are precisely what makes Hitchhiker not only an artifact and puzzle piece for adoring Neil Young fans, but a helluva good time for the average music listener (too bad you ungrateful millennials won't be able to experience it via Pono's immersive surround sound). Young intended for the songs on Hitchhiker to work as a cohesive whole, and they achieve this sentiment not through melody or lyrical themes, but through the aesthetics of a dude with a guitar (and occasionally a piano) singing some songs in a room. Granted, the effect of any record featuring "Pocahontas" and "Powderfinger" as its opening salvos is a special event, but I imagine the impact of this record has changed drastically since we've been able to hear all of these songs (but two) in other album contexts.
It's these two tracks, "Hawaii" and "Give Me Strength," that are the real treat for Neil Young diehards. Both were previously unreleased, and the former, at least, has immediately entered the canon of great Neil Young songs. "Hawaii" begins with a mischievous chuckle and mumble—he must have had that good yayo—before descending into a riff that sounds like early Townes Van Zandt. The chorus is nothing more than a half-yelped "Hawaiiiiiiiii," which is one of those things no one should be able to pull off. But part of Neil Young's talent has always been to perform such ideas as if they make total sense, a confidence surely derived from a career made whilst singing like a dude midway through inhaling a bunch of helium.
Young busts out a harmonica for "Human Highway," which is both a tremendous song and the title of an exceedingly strange film made by Neil in 1982. He directed it under the name Bernard Shakey—once again, probably from that good yayo—and managed to get Dennis Hopper and the dudes from Devo to act in it. "Human Highway" the song is better. It comes off of 1978's Comes A Time, which is a return to form of sorts for Young. It delights in the folky twang of his early LPs, a sound he had begun moving away from when he recorded with Crazy Horse.
While Hitchhiker is a lovely addition to a legendary discography, the real joy in its tracklist is scurrying down the sidestreets and crevices it offers. Because these songs—except for the aforementioned "Hawaii" and "Give Me Strength"—all appear on various records Young made from 1977-2010, Hitchhiker serves as a remember when as much as it does its own album.
"Captain Kennedy" reminds you to re-visit 1980's Hawks & Doves, Young's shortest album at 27 minutes. Two years later, he emerged with Trans, a vocoder album that bewildered his fans in 1982 but an audience today wouldn't blink an eye if Frank Ocean released it as his follow-up to Blonde. Hitchhiker acts, above all, as a reminder that Neil Young is our greatest living rockstar (Sorry to Bruce Springsteen, and as such, my father as well). Sure, he released a live album in 2016 that clocks in at 100 minutes, and features animal and nature sounds—an idea best left for stoned dorm-room beatmakers, perhaps—and his revolutionary music storage device was a technological step backwards, but artists like Neil Young thrive off of these side projects and diversions. They always come back home, often with a neat little gift like Hitchhiker. When that happens, all of the other stuff only adds to the charm.
Will Schube is not in Hawaiiiiiii, but he is on Twitter.