Neil Young’s Archives: A sneak peek
If you check the weather in Hades today, don’t be surprised to find Beelzebub shoveling snow.
Neil Young’s Archives project is real. I just viewed a sampler Blu-Ray disc, ahead of the full 10-disc first volume’s official release on June 2.
And if the taster disc that arrived in my mailbox today is a representative sample, it looks to be a game changing approach to documenting an artistic life. If the depth of information and creativity exemplified here is matched throughout the Archives’ mooted three box sets, then 20 years of broken promises and disappointments related to this project will vanish the moment your home system loads the wickedly interactive Blu-Ray version.
The two-decades running melodrama of Young’s on-again, off-again scheme to unveil his career-spanning opus is well documented (I took a crack at it here). Some months ago, June 2, 2009 was announced as the once-and-for-all, for reals release date for Blu-Ray, DVD and CD versions of the set. As an added come-along, if you ordered the whole magilla through Neil’s website, you would receive a bonus “preview disc.” And that’s what arrived at my door today.
At this point, having followed this saga for so long and watched the set emerge on label release schedules and then mysteriously vanish, I knew better than to get my hopes up. And even now, with the preview disc in hand, I still half expect Neil could put the kibosh on the project once more between now and June 2.
With all those qualifications aside, here’s what’s on the disc.
The sampler appears to represent the content contained on the actual box set’s disc entitled Early Years: 1963-1965. At its most basic level, that’s 15 songs dating from Young’s very earliest musical experiments growing up in Winnipeg, Manitoba and working in Fort William, Ontario, fronting The Squires — a Shadows-like outfit initially specializing in trebly instrumentals — then through some tentative folk recordings with pal Comrie Smith in Toronto, then to a frequently-bootlegged audition tape recorded in New York City for Elektra Records.
So far, so much like just about every completist’s collection. But the remarkable thing about Archives is not simply the music it collects; it’s the way that music is matched with other material for a rich multi-media experience. The Blu-Ray is organized so you can simply play through the track list (with a visual of the appropriate playback machine “playing” the disc — be it a 60s-era hifi or a professional reel-to-reel machine). Or you can access a virtual filing cabinet which contains a separate dossier on each song. As the song plays, you can click around to early photographs, newspaper articles, related business correspondence, a list of every gig the Squires played and some hilarious and poignant hard-luck letters Young wrote his mom from the road in those early days.
One file even contains a recent video clip of Neil opening a 1963 letter he mailed to himself with music transcriptions, as proof of copyright to the Squires’ first songs. Other songs contain audio clips of Young listening back to the tracks and discussing his reaction. There’s hours of reading, listening and viewing value packed into the disc.
As well, there’s a fantastically detailed and illustrated time line which plots all the major events in Young’s personal and professional life, as well as significant world events. Looking at the compression of activity in his creative life from the time he moves to Los Angeles and forms Buffalo Springfield through his dual careers with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Crazy Horse is breathtaking.
These very first recordings play back and sound very good considering their age. But they were created on fairly primitive equipment and so the sampler disc does not really test the true caliber of Blu-Ray’s other big boasting point — high definition audio. As the audio disc’s set-up menu takes great pains to explain, Archives in its Blu-Ray incarnation plays back in 24 bit/196 khz audio. For those with limited audio capacity (it says here), the discs can also play back in lower fidelity 24/96, which is still 250 times what you can expect from the average CD (and Young goes on to further explain that CD audio contains 90 percent more data than the average MP3).
I’m not an audiofile by any stretch of the imagination, but it is quite clear that there is sonic resolution to burn here, and I can’t wait until the full box set is released and those roaring chords to “Cinnamon Girl” test my speakers’ mettle.
My impression is that Archives is fine to approach as just another collection of songs, but Young’s intent is now much clearer. This is a multi-media biography. Every song, every photo, every newspaper article, every personal piece of correspondence, every fragment of film or TV clip has been carefully placed in context. Put it on in the background and listen if you want, but know that if you have the time and passion to really dig in, this is a deep, rich, interactive experience that has the potential to illuminate the artist’s work and life in ways that really were not possible prior to this technology.
So with the first 10-disc Archives set now weeks away from official release, I’m eager to hear, read, watch and experience how Neil Young developed between 1963 and 1972. And then I want to do the same for the rest of his career as detailed on subsequent box sets.
And already I’m drawing up my short list of other artists I’d love to see get the same treatment.