First off: These archives, if you opt for the Blu-ray set, cost $280 at Amazon.com. And if you’re a real fan, that’s the way to go. The lesser sets, the DVD or the upcoming CD set (which will basically amount to a remastered, “Cortez the Killer”-less version of Decade) aren’t real options if you’re the kind of person who’s been waiting for this, who devoted himself to the “put Journey Through the Past on DVD” online petition; they might as well come with a note from NY himself informing you of his disappointment in your lack of commitment.
This 10-disc set chronicles Young from his early Squires demos through After the Goldrush. The idea that some of his best work is still marked for archives to come is intimidating, but slightly less so when you count multiple versions of the same song — three takes each of “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Sugar Mountain,” and “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” for example, and two takes of “Birds” and “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.” But this is no surprise — Young has made a career out of multiple takes and live tracks — though the odd mix of completist archival footage and the greatest-hits style inclusion of studio album tracks is sure to leave everyone at least slightly unsatisfied.
There’s no sense in bitching, either, that the 50 gigabyte Blu-rays seemingly contain the same amount of music as a standard issue 700 megabyte CD. The hyped high-def audio is truly incredible. Live performances resonate with the warmth of vinyl and the clarity of CD for an effect that’s spookily close to Young strumming a guitar in your living room — even on my semi-shitty, out-of-the-box speaker system. I didn’t have a DVD set for comparison, but the Blu-ray set definitely sounds like new technology. This is what science chose to develop instead of garbage-powered flying cars.
The fact that the set is on Blu-ray might cause some confusion about what you’re getting. Only a couple of discs — the 1971 Massey Hall concert and Young’s self produced 1974 tour doc Journey Through the Past — contain much film footage. The other discs are simply albums that turn your television into a Neil Young shrine. The 1970 Fillmore East concert disc projects photos of the live show while Young plays a version of “Down by the River” that seems to last longer than some presidential administrations; most of the other discs feature CGI animation of spinning records and reels-to-reel, backdropped with Young’s personal snapshots, setlists, and legal-pad lyric sheets.
The Massey Hall concert (released only two years ago) is less powerful for having been so recently unearthed, but it’s still a highlight, mixing charmingly awkward and intimate performance footage with home videos of … oh my god, it’s the actual old man Neil’s singing about in “Old Man”!
For the kind of obsessives who make Trekkies feel normal, the legendarily insane and heretofore unreleased Journey Through the Past is even more pants-soiling. Its mundanity is infamous, but the couple of other Young Frankensteins (what? I think it’s better than Young-heads) I watched the film with (none older than 26) had never heard Young speak outside of a few lines of between-song banter on live albums, and so found the scenes of Young just hanging out — whether smoking a joint; discussing the widespread acceptance of marijuana use (over a joint) with Crosby, Stills, and Nash; or sitting on the hood of his car, puffing from a hand-rolled cigarette filled with an indeterminate substance — mesmerizing. Even better is the concert footage, which not only chronicles Young’s influential shift from fringed buckskin pantsuits to frilly pirate shirts, but captures some incredible performances of “Southern Man” and “Mr. Soul” in that incredible Blu-ray audio. It’s well worth fast-forwarding through all those scenes of graduation-capped Christ figures and black-hooded horsemen (Young presumably did the drugs he took while editing the film off-camera) to get to.
The point is, if you’ve seriously considered buying this set, just go ahead and get it. You’re obviously either a hardcore fan with a good deal of expendable income, or a fanatic with really poor life skills, and either way you’re not going to regret the purchase.