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Neil Young - Songs for Judy Music Album Reviews

Collecting two-dozen highlights from 1976 solo sets, this candid document finds the singer sorting through old standards and almost-lost classics at a particularly restless moment.

Songs for Judy captures Neil Young at his mercurial peak, writing songs too fast to release and scrapping albums too fast to remember. In November 1976, on a tour backed by the reunited Crazy Horse, he opened with solo acoustic sets at his buzzed and intimate best. Sanctioned photographer and taper Joel Bernstein and teenage rock journalist Cameron Crowe sorted through recordings of that run, compiling a 20-plus-track mix that, when leaked and bootlegged, eventually came to be known as The Bernstein Tapes. Long circulated among fans, it is perhaps the definitive document of Young in his archetypal solo acoustic guise.

Restored to pristine warmth for the launch of Young’s own Reprise imprint, Shakey Pictures, and his recent archival venture, the new sequence makes Young’s surreal ramble about spying Judy Garland in the front row the introduction instead of a stoned interruption midway through (good), uses it for a title (meh), and perhaps captures an ideal performance that balances old favorites with Young’s latest work. For a musician as impulsive and forward-looking as Young, nostalgia has long been an equal presence. Songs for Judy includes many of Young’s core standards, represented on live albums in virtually every decade since, from a yearning version of “Harvest” to the insistent drive of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” and a dreamy “After the Gold Rush,” dedicated to “all the freeways here in Texas.”

But the heart of Songs for Judy is the palpable sense of Young in motion. Three months before these shows, he’d quit a tour with Stephen Stills, departing on his bus in the middle of the night, leaving a trail of dust and a telegram that read, “Funny how some things that start spontaneously end that way.” With Young turning 31 midway through the performances captured here, Songs for Judy has more starting than ending, featuring plenty of songs that would’ve been unfamiliar to the audiences hearing them. (That goes for the subtle organ tease of the then-unreleased “Like a Hurricane” hidden at the start of “A Man Needs a Maid,” too.)

Some of his best new material during this period would remain unfamiliar except to serious fans, demos and outtakes scattered to the winds. Several tunes show up from Hitchhiker, recorded that summer but unissued until last year, like the dreamy breakup number “Give Me Strength” (virtually abandoned after the tour) and the incandescently Richard Nixon-humanizing “Campaigner” (buried near the end of the retrospective, Decade, released a year later). “Too Far Gone” presages alt-country but would stay in the vaults until 1989’s Freedom, the distant piano lament “No One Seems To Know” until now. “It seems every time I tried to record this song, someone stepped in and stopped it,” he says by way of introducing “Human Highway,” the proposed title track from a never-finished Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young album. Here, accompanying himself on scrappy banjo, Young turns in the best of the officially released versions, Young’s fatigue bolstered by brightness.

For good reason, the heroism of being a weary and high dude with an acoustic guitar has faded some since the mid-1970s. Still, Young’s musical presence is one of goofy but deep companionship and hushed moods; it’s ideal for late nights, lonely or otherwise. The cliches about getting wasted and hung-up come early and often (“Too Far Gone” and “Roll Another Number”), and the lyrics sometimes fall far short of profound, but vibeyness is Young’s well-established superpower. “The moon is almost full/except for stars,” he sings on “Give Me Strength,” not totally making sense but illuminating a melody that slides past like a glowing night. Lyrics are well and good, and Young has written great ones, but Songs For Judy is a reminder that—even for a singer/songwriter—success can have as much to do with the rest of it: the settings, the recordings, the performances, the feels.

Recorded during the decadent pre-punk ’70s, and released in the terrifying post-capitalism 2010s, Songs for Judy now feels like a concept album whose concept is just as far out as prog rock, if less flashy and more soothing. It’s a high fantasy of meadows and moons and canyons, of shows that start after midnight, of possessing or creating enough space to let Neil Young play some quiet songs for you.

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