Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams: The Greatest Folk Rock Album That Never Was

Released nearly 50 years after being shelved, the beloved singer/songwriter’s should’ve-been eighth album is a piercing, emotional and scattered portrait of a genius grappling with a transitional period in his career

Music Reviews Neil Young
Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams: The Greatest Folk Rock Album That Never Was

For decades, an acetate copy of Neil Young’s lost 1977 album—Chrome Dreams—was heavily circulated in fan circles, but it never went any further than that. Initially, the project was meant to be a proper follow-up to his 1975 Crazy Horse record Zuma. He had concluded his Ditch Trilogy that same year with Tonight’s the Night (though that album had been made and shelved two years prior) and was firmly squared away as North America’s best living storyteller. Dylan had put out Blood on the Tracks and Desire in back-to-back years around the same time, but the bite that made the Greenwich Village folk practitioner a legend was starting to peter out, as many all-time greats tend to experience at some point or another. It was Young, who’d put out Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, After the Gold Rush, Harvest, On the Beach, Tonight’s the Night and Zuma all in a six-year period, that was still on fresh legs and at the pinnacle of his game. In retrospect, he might be responsible for one of the single greatest half-decade runs in all of rock ‘n’ roll history.

1977 was meant to be a banner year for Young. He’d just released Long May You Run with former CSNY bandmate Stephen Stills the previous fall, but he’d also compiled numerous songs between 1974 and 1976 and had nowhere to put them under his own name. From what we know now, because of Young’s vault of bootlegs and “lost” projects, he also recorded Homegrown and Hitchhiker around that time, too—but both albums went unreleased for decades. Chrome Dreams, despite being banished to a similar fate, feels like the most fully-formed of the trio—as if it was a true career benchmark that never became fully realized. The fact that, in 2007, Young released a record titled Chrome Dreams II damn near solidifies that truth.

Recorded everywhere from Indigo Ranch Studio in Malibu, California to Quadrafonic Sound Studios in Nashville, Tennessee to Hammersmith Apollo in London, Chrome Dreams is not just a living, breathing full moon; it’s a document of a prolific, all-time era in Young’s career that never truly was. In 1977, he released the middle-of-the-road American Stars ‘n Bars—which was heavily shouldered by “Like a Hurricane”—and then, in 1978, he put out his country-focused Comes a Time—which was headlined by “Four Strong Winds,” a song Young didn’t even write.

It’s perplexing, as a Neil Young evangelist, to make full sense of this recent run of unvaulted “lost” album releases. We got Hitchhiker in 2017 and then Homegrown in 2020, two projects that feature much of the same content as Chrome Dreams and have also been deemed as “lost records.” Young rarely does interviews these days, so it’s hard to say whether he had this batch of songs near completion and just couldn’t find a full-bodied, complete space for all of them or not. What we do know, however, is that Chrome Dreams is a great assemblage of 12 of the best tracks Young ever wrote. How likely it was to be a bonafide studio album 46 years ago is beside the point because, man, what a triumph it is—even in 2023.

Chrome Dreams begins in a familiar place, with the solo ballad “Pocahontas.” The song is, most notably, featured on Rust Never Sleeps—albeit with more overdubs to match the bigger, prettier production glaze of 1979 pseudo-live record. However, the version we get this time around is the track in its most original form. Initially made for Hitchhiker, “Pocahontas” was inspired by Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge,” which characterized Matoaka, and Marlon Brando’s boycott of the 1973 Academy Awards—where Sacheen Littlefeather spoke on his behalf, alerting the world that Brando was protesting the treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood.

Young tackles the cyclical nature of violence against Indigenous People, singing especially about women being killed in tepees by white men who, later, massacre roaming buffalo. “In the mornin,’ on the fields of green, in the homeland we’ve never seen,” Young sings. “And maybe Marlon Brando will be there by the fire. We’ll sit and talk of Hollywood and the good things there for hire. And the Astrodome and the first tepee. Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.” Whether or not you believe that Young is perpetuating the American white-washing of Matoaka’s identity (she has long been reduced to “Pocahontas” in historical context) or that he is cheekily throwing a jab at Brando’s political statement, what is undeniable is that “Pocahontas” is one of the greatest stories he’s ever sung.

There are five tracks on Chrome Dreams that were later reconfigured for American Stars ‘n Bars—all of which are, to no one’s surprise, the best cuts from the uneven 1977 album that Young did end up releasing. “Will to Love” features Young performing all of the instruments himself, including guitars, an organ, vibraphone and drums. It’s a rawer song that evokes a demo quality, though he layers haunting, complex harmonies around his own mangled, gritty lead vocal—as he sings of an Icarus-like approach to love and grief and loss. “I can be like a fire in the night, always warm and giving off light,” Young sings. “But there comes a time when I shine too bright. Oh, I’m just a fire in the night.” “Will to Love” is a titanic story of determination amid self-doubt, displayed on Chrome Dreams in a vessel that juxtaposes the muted, subdued rendition put on American Stars ‘n Bars. Similarly, Young performs all of “Hold Back the Tears” by himself, and articulates how hope can lead to true love and survival: “Hello, my old friend, it’s good to see you smiling,” he sings. “You’ve been around so long, you must be strong.”

American Stars ‘n Bars is mostly beloved because of its centerpiece, “Like a Hurricane,” which appears here in its original glory. There’s not much to say about the track that hasn’t been said over and over and over again. It rules and it shreds as one of four Crazy Horse entries on Chrome Dreams, as Young, Poncho Sampedro, Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina take their chemistry and make solid gold out of it. The best part of “Like a Hurricane,” beyond its eight-minute massacre of a listener’s eardrums, is that the song begins midway through a guitar riff—it’s one of the ultimate fade-in intros ever. “Like a Hurricane” loosely mimics the melody of Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” but the comparisons are greatly overpowered by Young’s explosive, relentless lead guitar—which he barrel rolls into multiple face-melting solos.

“Homegrown” has bounced around over the years. It was, initially, the title track of a record slated for release in 1975, but Young released Tonight’s the Night instead and Homegrown sat in exile for 40 years. “Homegrown” became the roaring, riff-heavy closing track on American Stars ‘n Bars, and it arrives on Chrome Dreams all the same. Recorded with Crazy Horse, the song is a proper companion piece to “Like a Hurricane,” as Young funnels a similar-toned guitar performance into an arrangement that barely stretches past two minutes in length. The two songs were recorded within 10 days of each other at Broken Arrow Ranch. Though it’s restrained and meticulous, there’s a jam aspect to “Homegrown” that allows it to cut through the noise with more noise. “Homegrown’s all right with me. Homegrown is the way it should be,” Young sings.

While the performance of “Sedan Delivery” that ended up on Rust Never Sleeps is one of Young’s greatest forays into punk rock, the version on Chrome Dreams is a scaled-back slice of hard rock that never outmuscles its own finesse. Once offered to Lynyrd Skynyrd for their Street Survivors album in 1977 (along with other Chrome Dreams cuts “Powderfinger” and “Captain Kennedy”), it’s a good thing the Southern rockers turned it down. “Sedan Delivery” is much better served when Young and Poncho are trading guitar licks with one another. Rather than tapping into the limitless energy of a live space, the track was recorded with the intention of putting it on Zuma, which explains why its appearance never gets too chaotic. It’s a raucous jam, yes, but it doesn’t metabolize its own greatness for the sake of popping off with an out-of-place, ear-splitting solo. Its position on the tracklist, along with “Like a Hurricane,” is similar to how “Are You Ready for the Country?” was the barnburner on side one of Harvest while “Alabama” played the part on side two.

A monumental moment on Chrome Dreams comes via “Star of Bethlehem,” which is the oldest composition out of the dozen. Initially the Homegrown closing number and, later, the first track on side two of American Stars ‘n Bars, “Star of Bethlehem” is one of Young’s tenderest ballads ever. Featuring Ben Keith’s visceral dobro instrumentation and Karl T. Himmel’s country-inspired brush drumming, the focus gets (rightfully) tilted onto Young and Emmylou Harris—who harmonize so deftly and sweetly together in-between pulls of the former’s dry harmonica, lamenting the trials of getting older and watching your memories of happiness no longer shield you from a lingering downfall. “Yet, still a light is shining from that lamp on down the hall,” they sing. “Maybe the star of Bethlehem wasn’t a star at all.”

The stripped-back rendition of “Powderfinger,” which we first heard six years ago on Hitchhiker, is still a stirring alternate reality that is so greatly perpendicular to the roaring, twin-guitar-solo version on Rust Never Sleeps. While the latter is Young’s greatest song ever, what we hear on Chrome Dreams fits much more into the architecture of the record as a whole. As tracks like “Like a Hurricane” and “Sedan Delivery” are gravitational and carry much of the heavier weight, a solo acoustic interpretation of “Powderfinger” allows Young to spotlight the song’s harrowing, mythical story: A young man who must protect his family from the onslaught of a forthcoming gunboat, and the disastrous mortality of having to act alone in the wake of other men’s inactions. “You fade away so young, there’s so much left undone,” Young sings. “Remember me for my love, I know I miss her.”

The two lesser known tracks—“Too Far Gone” and “Stringman”—are easily the cornerstones of Chrome Dreams, which is a huge feat, considering that all 12 chapters are perfect and generational. “Stringman” is a particularly haunting, three-minute piano ballad from Young that greatly rivals “After the Gold Rush.” He’d originally recorded the tune at Hammersmith Apollo in London and would perform it during solo sections at Crazy Horse gigs, but it never had a recorded version until it was made a part of his Unplugged setlist in 1993—arriving as the only part of Chrome Dreams to not be featured on any other studio albums, lost or released.

“Stringman” is one of the most breathtaking and complex entries in all of Young’s catalog, as he sings of war, hippies, friendship and the casualties that come with lost hope. Young has had a history of writing songs that, seemingly, contradict his own professed beliefs—like the pro-Reagan track “Union Man” or “Campaigner,” where he proclaims that “even Richard Nixon has got soul”—and “Stringman” appears to join those ranks by standing on the other side of counterculture protests. “Or the lovers on the blankets that the city turned to whores, with memories of green kissed by the sun,” he sings. “You can say the soul is gone and close another door. Just be sure that yours is not the one.”

But, it is “Too Far Gone” that is the heavyweight champion of Chrome Dreams, as Young and Poncho team up for one of the most attractive and sublime folk songs ever assembled. Between the two bandmates dueting with an acoustic guitar and a mandolin, “Too Far Gone” is a storytelling revelation worth gospelizing over and over again—as Young sings verses about the early joys and eventual dissolution of his relationship with Carrie Snodgress. “Was I too far gone for you?” he questions. “We had drugs and we had booze, but we still had something to lose. And by dawn, I wanted to marry you.” It’s a love song rendered human and familiar by loss, and so few tracks in Young’s catalog lend such a generosity to the people, places and feelings he’s eulogizing.

Chrome Dreams, despite sitting on a shelf for nearly 50 years, falls into our laps as one of Neil Young’s boldest works. It features almost all of his closest and most treasured collaborators, including members of Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, the Santa Monica Flyers and, of course, Emmylou Harris. The tracklist’s sequencing and lyrical foundation parallels Harvest while maintaining a restless-yet-confined energy akin to After the Gold Rush. With how accessible and repurposed many of the tracks have been over the last four decades, Chrome Dreams might initially sound like a greatest hits treasure trove. But, if we are to consider it in the same light from which it was fashioned—that it was meant to be the follow-up to Zuma that, inevitably, became American Stars ‘n Bars instead—it’s one of the greatest folk rock albums ever made and a herculean portrayal of a brilliant songwriter itching for another renaissance.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from his home in Columbus, Ohio.

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