First Listen of Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 Box: 23 Years in the Making -- and Worth the Wait

The box, which its designer described as "a piece of furniture."
The box, which its designer described as "a piece of furniture."

Longtime LA record man Bill Bentley says he first saw a listing for the Neil Young Archives project when he was working at Warner Brothers in the late 1980s. The release was supposed to be a follow-up to Young's classic collection Decade, a three-record set that came out in 1977. This rumored sequel, Decade II, was also supposed to be a three album set, but soon became a something else.

It was known that Young obsessively documented all his voluminous endeavors -- indeed, had a full-time archivist, Joel Berstein, in charge of gathering film, video and audio. In hardcore fans' imagination, there existed somewhere a vast basement or barn (or something equally Youngian/rustic) with piles of files and rows of master tape -- and not just of himself; Young is known to have possessed some of the original and best copies of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes masters.

After about ten years, it had become a sort Ark of the Covenant or King Arthur's Sword -- this mythical thing that we're pretty sure existed, but heretofore unproven. By the early '00s, the project had expanded to include outtakes, photos, lyric sheets and "every possible kind of thing we could find that we could put together and he could form," recalled archivist Joel Bernstein. It was a running joke among Neil Young fans: "Will this thing ever come out -- and if so, could it ever live up to what exists in our imagination?" Over the years the project grew bigger, thicker, as though Neil Young and his longtime documentarians had secured a Philosopher's Stone and were teaching themselves alchemy.

Neil Young
Neil Young

Turns out the Stone they had acquired was Blu Ray technology, which allowed Young, Archives producer Larry Johnson, archivist Bernstein and a Warner Bros. team to create a multimedia feast that is Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1, which they unveiled last night at the Sunset Marquis.

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Twenty-three years is a long time, but, based on an hour-long demo of the Blu Ray version in dining room at the Marquis, it was worth it -- and not just because I walked out with the advance of 10-DVD version of Archives (don't have Blu Ray yet). Watching the creators of the Archives box -- which a longtime Young designer described as "a piece of furniture" -- wend their way through the many offerings is pretty astounding. From video of Neil Young recording in a barn, to an intimate in-studio medley of "The Loner" and "Cinnamon Girl," to watching him open old letters with songs inside that he'd scribbled down in order to secure copyright on them, to written lyrics of classics, to old newspaper reviews, to fantastic graphics, to Young's first feature film, Journey Through the Past, It's a goddamn feast, and one that promises to keep on giving. With the technology, Young and his colleagues are able to offer new content that owners of the Blu Ray version can download when they're made available. (See the entire track listing here.)

The Blu Ray and DVD versions have 128 tracks, the CD version has 116. The Blu Ray has way more stuff than that, though (hence the $299 list price, vs. $199 for 10 DVD set and $99 for eight CD set), including twelve hidden tracks and bonus "Easter eggs" planted on various pages, which, when clicked, reveal video clips and other extras.

It's all pretty amazing, but it wouldn't mean anything if the music wasn't there.

But Young is, thankfully, a stickler for sound quality, and whatever they did to the music within, it sounds like Neil Young is sitting on your back porch with you strumming on his guitar. Astounding. I heard layers of sound in "The Loner," from one of three "Topanga"-titled discs in the collection featuring music Young made when he was living in the canyon, that I'd never heard before. Listening to "Round and Round," one of my favorite of his songs (among about 50 others), on headphones, which I'm doing right now, is jaw-droppingly beautiful. Analog warmth, it seems, has finally been infused into the new technology. The depth is incredible.

Another cool, retro thing about the DVD and Blu Ray versions of Archives is that when you listen, an image of a record player or other audio device of the era is shown onscreen playing the song, A 45 record spins as though a an old turntable embedded on your screen. During one of the most beautiful versions of "Sugar Mountain" you'll ever hear -- soft, smooth and harmonic -- the DVD runs a video of a vintage reel-to-reel player (hi-fi in 1972) sitting on a candlelit table, an ashtray and a half-empty cup of coffee next to it. The reels turn along with the song. During "Down by the River," we see a close-up of a record player tone arm reading the music on a spinning LP.

This was obviously a labor of love, but what's more, it seems to be at least a labor of lust. The passion with which the the creators have imaged Decade II feels all consuming, as though they totally lost themselves inside the the project.

But it's an expensive proposition for sure, especially for the Neil Young completist. After all, to really get the most out of their past 23 years of collecting and compiling, you're not only going to have to pony up the $300 for the 10-Blu-Ray set, but, chances are, another $300 for a decent Blu Ray player. That would be $600 for the full experience.

But to Young, it's worth it. As he said in Jimmy McDonnough's biography, Shakey:

"I don't give a shit whether anybody BUYS it or not. I just wanna do it. And there may only be two hundred copies, signed by me. But it's gonna fuckin' exist. When it's done, people can do whatever the fuck they want, make any fuckin' order they want out of it. But they're gonna have the whole fuckin' thing to choose from. They're not gonna get part of it. Everything-the good, the bad, the ugly."

Start saving your money. It comes out on June 2 -- the whole fuckin' thing.

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