Neil Young’s digital attic
Being alive during most of the past couple of centuries has involved, inevitably, the accumulation of stuff. Check your attic or basement and there’s probably boxes of junk of no obvious immediate value – old school report cards, frayed concert ticket stubs, old letters, a pair of bell bottom pants you hope might come back into fashion – that you just can’t bear to part with.
Of course, if you manage to become a figure of importance, that useless stuff will quickly become fascinating artifacts. Contact a university or library near you and arrange to part with your flotsam – I mean, your personal papers — in return for a swell tax receipt.
To live in the recent centuries is to generate and gather such documents, but with the advent of the digital revolution, that’s all changing. It is very possible that current and future generations are accumulating this autobiographical detritus in a purely digital realm. Think about it, the old letters and holiday snapshots occupying space in your basement are now JPEGs and e-mails floating around on computer hard drives or in cyberspace.
This is the irony of Neil Young’s Archives Volume 1: 1963-1972. The multi-format, multi-disc set collects what must be almost all of the contents of Young’s accumulated career artifacts – old analog tapes, snap shots, yellowing newspaper clips, hand-scrawled lyrics on stained, frayed paper, correspondence between label and management, snatches of actuality captured on film and video. But it takes that old school material and presents it in a state-of-the-art format: Blu-Ray.
It’s hard to imagine contemporary and future artists creating a work of this kind, because they won’t be dragging an analog archive into a digital world. So even as Archives heralds a new era, it also signals the end of another, for better or worse.
The set is also available on DVD and CD (and buyers of the Blu-Ray and DVD can receive a free MP3 download of most of the music). But let’s be clear; Archives was designed to be seen and heard and explored via Blu-Ray. The art in its creation is in how it structures the material. Most songs are placed thoughtfully and imaginatively in context with lyric drafts, interviews, photographs and alternate versions, which typically illuminate the song’s meaning. On the Blu-Ray version, you can explore this material as you listen (not so on the DVD version and CD is obviously audio only). At its best, Archives becomes a new kind of autobiography. There’s no narrative voice guiding you through this material, though. The listener/reader/watcher can take his or her own journey of discovery through the material. Archives isn’t like a book or a DVD or a record; it’s a hybrid of all three.
Blu-Ray’s other advantage is the refined resolution of both picture and sound. Although much of the film and video comes from primitive sources, the quality captured here is as good as it can get. And in Young’s early movie experiment, Journey Through The Past, what the film frequently lacks in coherence is sometimes compensated by beautiful imagery, vividly presented here. The audio restoration (for those who care, the audio is rendered at 24 bit/192 khz – exponentially superior to regular CD audio) is breathtaking.
At around $300 for the 10-disc Blu-Ray package (which includes a hefty, lushly-illustrated book, a poster, a note pad and a plain CD/DVD copy of the previously released archival live recording Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968), some fans would argue that for that price Neil should be willing to come to your house and perform in person. Indeed, one frequent criticism of this release has been that – far from expanding access to Young’s work – the Blu-Ray format has made Archives the preserve of elite consumers.
In Walter Benjamin’s influential essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he argued that the ability to recreate perfect replicas of art would shatter the “aura” of original works of art and thereby democratize creativity. In the nearly 75 intervening years, we’ve seen that the ability to create perfect replicas of revered works has often had the opposite effect of instilling more value in the original. How else to explain lineups at museums around the world or record-breaking art auctions, despite the likely option of viewing the paintings through mechanical reproduction?
The full impact of Archives suggests that state-of-the-art digital technology, if creatively employed, creates an even greater aura around the original work of art.