On August 26th, 1973, Joni Mitchell arrived at Studio Instrument Rentals in Los Angeles, where Neil Young and his band the Santa Monica Flyers were recording the boozy Tonight’s the Night. Joined by guitarists Ben Keith and Nils Lofgren, drummer Ralph Molina, and bassist Billy Talbot, Mitchell and Young tore through “Raised on Robbery,” soon to be released on her album Court and Spark.
If the Tonight’s the Night sessions were indeed a “drunken Irish wake,” as Talbot later recalled, this take on “Raised on Robbery” was the eulogy. Mitchell and Young, two Canadian Scorpios whose paths had crossed well before that night, joined together for the chorus, with Young’s slurred vocals trailing behind her. “Hey honey, you’ve got lots of cash,” she sang over the messy instrumentation. “Bring us round a bottle/And we’ll have some laughs/Gin’s what I’m drinking/I was raised on robbery.”
Mitchell’s visit to the studio has been steeped in myth since then, completely unheard until now. It’s one of the many, many gems off Young’s Archives Volume II (1972-1976), out this Friday after years of anticipation. 12 songs have never been released in any format, while 50 are previously unreleased versions of known songs. Whereas the first volume of Young’s Archives project — released in June 2009 — spanned the years from 1963 to 1972, the second covers only four years. That period is widely considered the peak of Young’s career, a time when he was so prolific that he was churning out music faster than his label could keep up with.
Of the ten discs on Volume II, three present recent archival releases: the 1973 live albums Tuscaloosa and Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live, and the 1975 lost album Homegrown. Several songs appear more than once in different iterations; “Love/Art Blues” is included three times on the same disc (The Old Homestead), leaving the listener in an endless loop not unlike our everyday life in the pandemic. The track first appeared on the 2014 live album CSNY 1974, but the three versions offered here were each cut at Young’s Broken Arrow Ranch. The first is arguably the best of the three: Young performs solo, stripped-down without a band, and it’s difficult not to well up with tears as he describes having to choose between the best things he’s ever had.
For casual listeners, the inclusion of already-released material and repeated songs may feel bloated and unnecessary. But hardcore fans have craved this for years, and they’ll be more than happy to indulge in any and all versions of these tracks (ahem, “The Losing End” at the Roxy!). Young’s completist mindset means that he’ll include warts and all — and he knows it.
“Some of it is good, some of it is crap that wasn’t released — there’s a reason,” he said of Vol. I to Shakey biographer Jimmy McDonough. “That’s what a fuckin’ archive is about, not ‘Here’s Neil Young in all his wonderfulness — the great, phenomenal fucking wonderfulness.’ I want people to know how fuckin’ terrible I was. How scared I was and how great I was. The real picture — that’s what I’m looking for. Not a product. And I think that’s what the die-hard fans want — the whole fuckin’ thing.”
Volume II kicks off in the fall of 1972 and concludes with Crazy Horse shows in London and Tokyo in March 1976. Disc One, Everybody’s Alone, includes rarities like the poignant “Letter from ‘Nam,” “Come Along and Say You Will,” and “Goodbye Christmas on the Shore.” The live recordings here show Young acting playful with the crowd: Before launching into “L.A.” at Sacramento’s Memorial Auditorium in 1973, he sings the second verse of Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” “The one time in my life I figured it was a toss-up between Bob Dylan and Sonny Bono,” he jokes. At the Bakersfield Civic Auditorium that same year, he prefaces “Sweet Joni,” his piano ballad for Mitchell, with, “My closest friends have never heard this song. I may screw this song up!” (In true “Circle Game” fashion, Mitchell’s own recent archive release includes a cover of “Sugar Mountain.”)
For roughly two decades, Young has set his exit music at shows to “Greensleeves,” the English folk tune that is heavily associated with Christmas. It closes Disc Five, Walk On (1973-1974), capping off material from On the Beach in addition to the original “Traces” and a full-band version of “Bad Fog of Loneliness.” For those who are used to hearing that last solemn rocker on Live at Massey Hall 1971, Young sounds even more dignified and mature than he did two years prior, bolstered by Keith and Molina on vocals.
Some of the unreleased tracks are unfathomably great, including “Daughters” with Nicolette Larson and “L.A. Girls and Ocean Boys,” one of the many songs inspired by Young’s crumbling relationship with actress Carrie Snodgress. The lines “’Cause you’ve been with another man/There you are and here I am” would end up on “Danger Bird” from 1975’s Zuma. That album is documented on the disc Dume, named after Young’s house in Malibu. It marks the entrance of guitarist Frank “Poncho” Sampedro, who joined Crazy Horse following the 1972 death of Danny Whitten and can be heard playing twinkling mandolin on the shattering “Too Far Gone.”
Young’s off-and-on-again bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash appear on Vol. II, too, most notably on the ninth disc, Look Out For My Love (1975-1976). The highlights all derive from sessions at Criteria Studios in Miami, particularly from the time when Stills and Young were recording Long May You Run; they trade off rollicking solos on “Separate Ways,” complete with Jerry Aiello’s organ. Crosby and Nash joined them that spring in South Florida, where they added vocals to “Ocean Girl,” “Midnight on the Bay,” and “Human Highway,” but Young ended up taking them off the tracks. “[Crosby and Nash] sang ‘Midnight on the Bay’ and it was great,” he told Bill Flanagan for Musician magazine in 1985. “It really was. I never should have erased that. But I thought I was doing the right thing at the right time.” All these years later, he’s made up for it.
If Volume II says anything about Young’s nearly six-decade career, it’s that he worked just as rapidly back then as he does now. Prior to the pandemic, the 75-year-old was at an all-time high on stage, throwing curveballs into his setlists (“New Mama” for the first time in 42 years) and hitting the road whenever he felt like it (Winnipeg with Crazy Horse during a polar vortex). That he’s unable to do that right now is a huge disappointment, but he’s making the most of it by digging into the vault and plotting several releases at a time. We may not be able to walk down the aisle of a historic theater to “Greensleeves,” but hearing it at home offers a new kind of comfort.