Sometime after completing Chrome Dreams in early 1977, Neil Young invited his Malibu neighbor Carole King over to hear his latest album. Years later he recalled, “About halfway through she went, ‘Neil, this isn’t an album. It’s not a real album. I mean, there’s nobody playing, and half the songs you’re just doing by yourself.’ She was just laughing at me. Because she crafts albums.”
There’s no way of knowing whether King’s withering assessment of Chrome Dreams played a part in Young’s decision to shelve the album in favor of the charmingly misshapen American Stars ’N Bars in the summer of 1977. Chrome Dreams may have been gone but it wasn't forgotten. Young lifted four of its tracks wholesale for American Stars ’N Bars, then re-recorded another song for that same album. “Pocahontas” and “Powderfinger” wound up on Rust Never Sleeps, “Captain Kennedy” popped up on Hawks & Doves, and Neil resurrected “Too Far Gone” for his 1989 comeback Freedom. Long before he started excavating lost albums and official bootlegs as part of the Neil Young Archive, Chrome Dreams survived as an acetate that worked its way into the bootleg marketplace, becoming relatively easy to find during the compact disc explosion of the 1990s.
All this subsequent recycling—a practice that ran all the way through 2017, when the late-night session that produced “Pocahontas” and “Captain Kennedy” was released in its entirety as the wistful album Hitchhiker—means that the long-overdue official release of Chrome Dreams carries a vague air of anti-climax. Forget unheard songs: Unlike Homegrown and Toast, two other “lost” albums released under the NYA’s Special Release Series banner, Chrome Dreams barely contains unreleased recordings. The hype sticker attached to the physical edition touts “2 previously unreleased versions,” which amounts to an alternate take of “Hold Back the Tears” and a slow, stumbling early “Sedan Delivery,” which would later take a punishing pace on Rust Never Sleeps.
Disappointing as that may be, Chrome Dreams offers a distinctly different experience than any other Young album from the late 1970s. It serves as an example of how albums manage to be more than the sum of their individual parts. Young is keenly aware how individual songs can harmonize and rhyme. When promoting Chrome Dreams II—a 2007 sequel that bears no overt relation to the album he essayed 30 years earlier—Neil explained, “Quite often I’ll record things that don’t fit with what I’m doing, so I just hold onto them for a while. Some of them are so strong that they destroy what I’m doing. It’s like if you have a bunch of kids and one of them weighs 200 pounds and the other ones are 75 pounds, you’ve got to keep things in order so they don’t hurt each other. So that’s why I held certain things back.”
In a sense, Chrome Dreams is a collection of songs Young held back so they wouldn’t battle with their siblings; he needed to parcel them out in order to give them a fair hearing. When delivered by Crazy Horse in full roar, “Powderfinger” provided Rust Never Sleeps with a clarifying blast of purpose, while “Too Far Gone” benefitted from an older, wearier Neil singing its melancholy refrain nearly 15 years after its original recording. “Captain Kennedy,” a delicate wisp of a song that distinguished Hawks & Doves, offered a bit of a respite in that album's haphazard clang yet it wasn’t quite at home there. It belongs among its bittersweet companions on Chrome Dreams, a record that very much is a product of Young aimlessly wandering out of the darkness that defined his mid-’70s.
“Captain Kennedy” is an airy recording that shows why Carole King didn’t consider Chrome Dreams “a real album.” Young peppers the record with cuts that contain little more than his voice and a guitar, recordings unadorned by such niceties as harmonies and percussion. Compare “Pocahontas” to its overdubbed incarnation on Rust Never Sleeps: The additional 12-string guitars and airy backing vocals turn a stoned vision into a crystalline fantasy. “Will to Love,” a bizarre reverie where Neil imagines he’s a salmon swimming upstream to mate as he strums his guitar in front of an audibly crackling fireplace, continues these hushed hallucinations. These recordings—not demos, although they’re spare enough to be mistaken for them—give the listener the sense that they’re eavesdropping on Young, a sense of hushed intimacy that suggests Chrome Dreams drifts in a twilight slipstream. It’s a waking dream interrupted by sudden jolts of thunder, as when “Like a Hurricane” blows in after a pensive first act.
“Like a Hurricane” is familiar, particularly this version, which wound up on Decade, the ’77 compilation that consolidated Young’s expeditions into a digestible narrative. Heard within this context, though, “Like a Hurricane” sounds bracing, with the loud, lumbering Crazy Horse sounding cruder than usual when surrounded by contemplative calm. Such shifts in tone aren't unusual on a Young record, but these particular songs in these particular versions in this particular sequence carry an unusual power. Individually, many of the compositions are indeed the 200-pound titans of Young’s imagination, songs that defined his rich, prolific peak that weathered the years, enduring as core components of his songbook. It would follow that Chrome Dreams also is one of Young’s strongest albums—and it is, yet it also feels curiously amorphous, lacking the ballast of Tonight’s the Night and Rust Never Sleeps. Without an anchor of gravity, Chrome Dreams almost seems to beg to be broken out into segments yet every quivering, ragged rendition of these familiar tunes benefit from being heard in order. What matters are not the parts themselves but how they’re assembled. The connections, both intentional and accidental, are what gives an album its character. Chrome Dreams carries a dream logic that's bewitching in a way the individual moments simply aren’t, a testament to how a good album sequence can almost be a magic trick.
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